Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Exploring the Sixth Extinction through Immersive Theater

One of the most-read guest posts of 2017 on the CFM Blog sharedt how immersive theater helped one Connecticut museum build new audiences. Since the topic evidently struck a chord with readers, I tuned my radar to find other examples of museum—theater collaborations.Today on the Blog, Maureen Rolla, director of strategic initiatives for the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, tells us about a recent production that I wish I had seen in person!

Nearly 10 years ago, CFM’s Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures speculated that the proliferation of interactive digital technologies would ultimately lead audiences “to expect to be part of the narrative experience at museums.” Since then, there’s been much discussion by CFM and others about the growing desire for more participative experiences and museums’ opportunities to incorporate such activities—tools like VR and AR and other enhanced storytelling—to create empathy and meaning.

With those issues at the fore, Carnegie Nexus—an initiative of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh—and Bricolage Production Company—named one of “7 Companies Producing Groundbreaking Immersive Theater” by Backstage.com—teamed up to present DODO: The Time Has Come, a world-premiere theatrical experience at Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History.

The Custodian. Photo by
Handerson Gomes
For six weeks this fall, the museums opened their doors after hours to small groups of intrepid adventurers—members of the hitherto secret “National Self-Preservation Society”—whose 90-minute initiation included contemplating artworks in galleries illuminated only by glowing lanterns, helping collections staff prepare scientific specimens, and one-on-one encounters with characters in hidden nooks and crannies, ranging from an attic crawl space to the subbasement. Threaded through the experience were themes of loss and memory. Focusing on the Sixth Extinction, the ongoing extinction event due primarily to human activity, DODO encouraged participants “to ponder the fates not only of lost species, but of lost artists, lost languages, lost songs and poems, and lost ways of life as well.”(Pittsburgh Tatler)

The sold-out run attracted more than 1,700 people, with an additional 180 turning out for a live-streamed Talk Back with the cast, creative team, and museum staff. Post-performance surveys resulted in an impressive 22% response rate, with 61% indicating the production caused them to see the museums in a new light: “This is the most unusual inside view you will ever get of the Carnegie Museums, no matter how many times you have been there—magical.” “Being in the museums after hours literally took my breath away.” One reviewer noted, “After the experience, I feel much more connected to museums now, shaken up by how much life and learning they can facilitate. . . Giving experimental, original performance work a chance to properly develop into something as stunning and grand as DODO is rare.” (No Proscenium)

In the attic.
Photo by Handerson Gomes
From the beginning, both parties were intent on challenging traditional rules of engagement, but doing so—especially in 17-acres of historic buildings filled with priceless artifacts—required an enormous amount of trust and cooperation. During the two-year development process, Bricolage interviewed scores of staff members, immersed themselves in the museums’ stories, and eventually came to know our buildings as well as (or better than) we know them ourselves. We pierced the barrier between “public” and “behind-the-scenes” spaces, not just because it made for great theater, but to offer a tactile experience of the collecting and research activities that are at the heart of museums, yet are so often hidden from view. We treaded the line between fiction and fact, honoring the creators’ imaginative ambitions, while ensuring that information about the collections would be factual.

Choosing the Sixth Extinction as a core theme had special relevance, given our Museum of Natural History’s focus on the Anthropocene, currently in its exhibition We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, and looking forward to the creation of a new Center for Anthropocene Studies. The open-ended nature of the script purposefully left room for participants’ contributions, inviting them to reflect on their own relationships with nature and responsibilities for safeguarding it. When asked to reflect on what DODO was about, most—not surprisingly—cited themes of “extinction and loss” and “humans’ interconnectedness with the earth and universe.” But many went beyond content to describe the effect the show had on them, suggesting the potential immersive experiences have for driving relevance and impact: “DODO is an ethereal and intimate journey…that calls to question the natural, spiritual, and physical foundations of our world. It will change you.” “This event literally changed the way I think about myself. I was completely emotionally invested.”

In Polar World. Photo by Handerson Gomes
What might we have done differently? Many participants wanted a chance to socialize and compare experiences immediately after the show. There were logistical challenges to making that happen, but we agree it would have enhanced the experience.

Now, just a few weeks after the close of DODO, we’ve started to discuss how the work can influence our museum practice. For example, by incorporating special lighting and sound and creating drama around specific objects; providing exclusivity through special after-hours viewings; offering individualized experiences and storytelling that keeps audiences front-and-center; and increasing access to behind-the-scenes experiences, which proved to be one of the most resonant aspects of the production.

We know other museums are experimenting with immersive theater in their venues, and we’re keen to compare notes and share ideas as our thinking develops.

Maureen Rolla is the director of strategic initiatives for the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, spearheading projects like Carnegie Nexus that leverage the collective assets of the museums outside disciplinary silos and hierarchical boundaries. Previously, she was deputy director of Carnegie Museum of Art (1999-2013) and administrative director of the Getty Leadership Institute (1992-1999).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Fostering Truth and Reconciliation One Generation at a Time

In his story for Museum 2040, Omar Eaton-Martinez posits a future in which the United States establishes its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to deal with the “atrocities and long-term impact of the genocide of First Nation peoples, enslavement of Africans, and incongruent immigration policies towards non-white peoples.” Futures studies teaches us that every plausible future has a toe hold in the present, so Omar’s story sent me in search of museums already formally involved in truth and reconciliation. Canada created a TRC in 2008 to address the damage inflicted by the Canadian residential schools that systematically separated indigenous children from their families. Cara Krmpotich,  Director and Associate Professor in the Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, has worked extensively with museums engaged in reconciliation work, and in today’s guest post she envisions where that work may lead us by the year 2040.

Just over a generation ago, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report and Calls to Action in Canada. The truth it brought to light was the history of Indigenous children being taken from their families and placed in Residential Schools with the goal of assimilating them into Euro-Canadian, Christian society. It continues to inspire reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but less public reconciliations are also happening within Indigenous families and communities. Back then, one of the lead Commissioners of the TRC, Justice Murray Sinclair, suggested that since the residential school experience spanned seven generations, the work of reconciliation would likely take multiple generations as well. Following this advice, our museum started thinking in generations.

Although the TRC focused on Residential Schooling in Canada, it opened a much larger conversation about decolonization. Those of us trained in anthropology and ethnographic museums, thought we had been “decolonizing the museum” for many years prior to the TRC. There was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the US, the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association Task Force Report in Canada, and constant conversations about collaboration, access, and post-colonialism. But in the wake of the TRC, the sense of power and purpose shifted. Museums were pushed to consider radical alternatives grounded in Indigenous sovereignty.

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal representatives from 4Rs Youth
Movement present the 4Rs drum made by Nisga'a artist
Mike Dangeli, as an expression of reconciliation at the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission Alberta National Event, March 2014.

At our museum, we chose to listen to one message in particular: Give It All Away and Start Again. In 2016 Lakota artist and professor, Dana Claxton, suggested this action at the spring meeting of the
Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization, and soon after that her fellow artist, Tania Willard, transformed the sentiment into a work of art. Many institutions came up with rationales for why they couldn’t act on this suggestion. Our museum – a municipal museum like many others across the country – decided to dedicate our first generation of reconciliation work to “Giving it All Away.” We are now embarking on our second generation of work, which is to “Start Again,” with the re-creation of collections representing Indigenous peoples, built from scratch with full and informed consent.

Giving It All Away took a lot of time, starting with the effort to rally staff and board members to the cause. A few people resigned over this decision, but at least they didn’t try to stop what we were doing. We took the advice of Indigenous leaders to begin our reconciliation work by starting locally. It took time to earn the trust of Indigenous nations—but trust is at the heart of reconciliation.

The museum suspended its usual exhibition schedule for five years and used its galleries to bring all its Indigenous collections out of storage. Our exhibition budget was repurposed to bring groups from communities in to see the collections and, as Cree and Anishinaabeg Elders and Survivors phrased it, to identify which people belonged to which objects. We listened to the call to reconnect knowledge to place by moving  public and school education programs out of the museum and into the communities. This practice ended up being so successful that it continues to be our main approach today. Museum educators currently run their programs on city streets, in ravines, at the lakeshore, in forests and on farms, and rarely in the museum. The museum’s collections are constantly in contact with the environment, as are ideas and our visitors.

It took twelve more years to give all our Indigenous collections back. Every possible destiny for those objects has been fulfilled. Now we are Starting Again. Our approach for this generation of reconciliation work is to collect through prior, free, informed consent. If donations are offered from non-Indigenous donors, we only accept them with the consent of the individual, family and/or First Nation who belongs with that item. We worry less about ownership and more about accountability, and this is reflected in the terms of our donation agreements. For Indigenous acquisitions, we plan for four generations of accountability between the museum and the individual, family and community, with the provision that after four generations either the item will revert back to the individual, family and community, or we will renew our stewardship by articulating our accountability to each other for the next four generations.

Our plan for the third generation of reconciliation work will require a fundamental rethinking of how our institution is funded. The city agreed to continue operational funding to the museum for a period of 40 years, after which time, we need to propose and justify a new budget model that reflects and enables our new ways of working. We are shifting from five-year strategic plans and ten-year director-led visions, to a museum practice based on twenty-year generations. We are just coming to understand what it means to work in generations, from measuring impact to planning staff positions, from predicting contingencies to maintaining relationships.  

Our fourth generation of reconciliation will be the repatriation of the lands on which the museum sits. For now, we are learning to give away, to give back, without fear and without loss.

And Cara notes:
I’d like to acknowledge Dana Claxton and Tania Willard for bringing their ideas so powerfully into the world; members of our TRC Reading Group Courtney Jung, Melissa Levin, Jennifer Orange, Cheryl Suzack, and Neil Ten Kortenaar; Camille Callison; Lucy Bell, Nika Collison, and Vince Collison; the MMMC group; and colleagues and students at the iSchool. I have done my best to treat the ideas you’ve shared with me with respect. Any misunderstandings or errors are my responsibility.

Cara Krmpotich is Director and Associate Professor in the Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. She teaches and researches in the areas of museum and indigenous relations, critical collections management, cultural property and material culture. Much of her work has been about getting Indigenous material heritage back into the hands of Indigenous peoples. She has worked in museums in the UK and in Canada, is active in the Ontario Museum Association, has written two books, and most recently, worked with Anishinaabeg and Cree seniors in Toronto, learning about their life experiences, collective memory, and urban Indigenous culture, all elicited through handling of collections. You can find her on Twitter @MMStCara

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Numbers Behind Museum 2040

Museum 2040—the current special issue of Museum—adheres pretty closely to the usual format of the magazine. It opens with a letter from the Alliance’s CEO, though in 2040 that CEO is a licensed psychiatrist starting a three-year stint as a “rotator” at AAM. Toward the end readers will find announcements about new jobs, though these include positions such as spiritual services director, poet-in-residence and director of fun. Each issue of Museum is anchored by a By the Numbers column presenting a few key facts and trends about the world and about museums. Realizing this feature could play a vital role in orienting readers to the scenario in which this issue is set, I recruited regular contributor Susie Wilkening, principal of Wilkening Consulting, to paint a numeric picture of this particular version of the future. Today on the blog, Susie shares a bit about what went into finding, or fabricating, realistic and credible projections about the year 2040.

Whenever Elizabeth asks me to think about the future, my first inclination is always to start by looking to the past. In this case, my 2040 “By the Numbers” assignment had me thinking of 1994. I was in college, and had a 486 computer on which I wrote my papers … but I checked my email daily via Georgia Tech’s broadband connection. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The point being, if you had plucked me out of 1994 and put me into 2017, yes, life is different, but we are all humans going through life’s ups and downs, and sustaining our physical lives. My assumption then, for 2040, was the same. Life will be different, yet the same.

Putting together a 2040 edition of “By the Numbers” was fun, daunting, and not that different than creating one for the present. I scanned for ideas, reviewed the issue’s essays and articles, and spent a fair amount of time thinking about the trends I’m seeing in society (and in museums) from my own work.

Thirty-plus ideas later, Elizabeth and I began sifting. The scenario in which Museum 2040 is set reflects a future shaped by current trends—no dire catastrophes, no miraculous good news, just business-as-usual playing out over the next 23 years. For this reason, we tossed out our most pessimistic concepts (such as listing the number of cities submerged by rising sea levels). On the flip-side, since we weren’t being wildly optimistic we had to axe the budget for a new US Department of Arts and Culture. I had thought of highlighting a car museum where you could drive real cars (an anachronism in the 2040 world of autonomous vehicles) but the New York Times kind of beat me to it.

We settled on eight data points from the future that were rooted in today’s reality. Here’s my thinking behind those eight choices:

An aging population. Demographic change was an obvious candidate for inclusion because of its profound effect on society. Racial and ethnic change pervade the 2040 issue in many ways, but the dramatic aging of the population (and practically stagnant population growth for children) wasn’t so obvious in the stories by our authors. I clearly needed to highlight that shift, and went to the US Census Bureau’s population projections to pull “real” numbers. Done.

6,152,440 kWh of energy generated by the 20 largest science centers. I’ll be honest. I had no idea how to make up credible numbers about renewable energy, so I turned to my friend and energy engineer, Jim Guertin, for help. Although we discussed multiple renewable sources, we decided to keep it simple and focus on photovoltaics. Jim then made energy generation estimates (less consumption), and sent me a crazy spreadsheet. I researched how much energy the typical house uses today (as good an estimate as any), and suddenly those 20 science center were powering 569 homes. (This doesn’t even count those other possible renewable sources, or other museums!)

5 extinct species successfully revived by the Zoo of the Long Now. Honestly, I just pulled that straight from the “What’s New” section. And the illustration was a no-brainer. It had to be a dodo!

2,132 museum schools serving more than half a million K-12 students. I give credit to Elizabeth for instigating this statistic. My job was primarily to say “let’s pull back on your lovely yet optimistic number a bit.” We compromised at 2,132.

18 percent increase in percentage of American adults visiting at least one museum per year. The 2017 number for the graph was easy: AAM’s Museums and America 2017 sampling (forthcoming) showed that 33% of Americans had visited a museum in the past year. But 2040? Since just over half of families with young children visit museums today, we thought that was a reasonable stretch goal for the entire population. So, 51% … an increase of 18 percentage points.

Health and wellness: This summer, I had spent a fair amount of time reading reports linking cultural consumption and well-being (you can find my reviews at The Curated Bookshelf). Then three different essays in the issue also focused on this theme. Obviously, this was important, so we devoted three graphics to it:

$425 million in impact investments in museum programs to improve health and wellness outcomes. I assumed Jessica Liu-Rodriguez (Funder Spotlight, page 37) wasn’t alone in wanting to see more health and wellness impact, and came up with a reasonable (though imaginary) 2017 number, plugged it into an inflation calculator, and got $425 million.

1,112 museums operating well-being and cognitive health centers. Given the rather conclusive evidence finding that challenging one’s mind aids cognitive health, the well-being and cognitive health centers were obvious … and 1,112 within the realm of possibility.

But what about health and wellness in daily life? The Newport Cultural Ecosystem (Accreditation Spotlight, page 39) provided a case study of a holistic cultural organization that would likely be at the forefront of health and wellness. Being a small city, it wouldn’t be as challenging to engage the medical community and get measurable results. Thus, 12% of Newport, RI residents receiving a medical prescription to visit and engage with the Cultural Ecosystem.

Some of these numbers are made up, and some are just a bit optimistic. Yet they are also rooted in trends and data that are real and possible for museums build on. I’m excited about the opportunities we all saw for museums in 2040, and the meaningful impact those new initiatives would have on individuals and communities. Now our job is to make that optimistic future a reality.

Susie Wilkening (@susiewilkening) is the principal of Wilkening Consulting. She has 20 years of experience in museums, including over ten years leading custom projects for museums as well as fielding groundbreaking national research on the role of museums in American society. She resides in Seattle, and is working hard to raise her two young children to be empathetic, creative, global citizens … by taking them to museums early and often.

Susie shares her latest research and data insights at The Data Museum, and book and research reviews on The Curated Bookshelf.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A letter to MUSEUM magazine and AAM from 250 Miles up at the International Space Station Museum

I continue to be gratified by the feedback on our "future" issue of Museum magazine. (Your digital copy available here.) Comments coming in through Twitter, email, and text message include "weird and wonderful," "inspiring," and (most frequently) "thought-provoking." A few people were concerned to see an obituary for Cecelia Walls, the Alliance's content and editorial strategist. Rest assured that Cecelia is alive and well, and had a blast writing her own obit. (I do confess to having suggested that the mechanism for her demise be a morally-challenged self-driving car.) 

As promised, we are extending this exercise in future-fiction by publishing additional essays and responses here on the blog. Today's post is by Rich Faron, president of Museum Explorer. Rich expands a story thread that Museum 2040 touched on briefly: the future of museums in space. 

When it was first unveiled, the idea for the now world-renowned International Space Station Museum (ISSM) emerged as a lightning rod for not only the unresolved issues of our own nation but in fact for many struggles being grappled with around the entire world. ‘Why, ‘said so many, ‘should so much valuable emotional energy [and more to the point, money] be marshaled in an effort to build something which most people could only conceive of at best, as symbolic?'

A lot of smart people dispensed with the notion completely saying that it could never be undertaken as a true ‘bricks and mortar’ project and besides what about getting visitors to the front door? Well, at least the second argument turned out to be not so much a problem as both ‘Twilight Tours’ and the almost economical ‘Public Space Bus Authority’ now regularly shepherd thousands of people on tours across the heavens every week. And the ISSM is being scheduled now as regular stop.

But back then for most folks the timing was simply bad. The original concept made its first splash even as our country still struggled to recover and mend the many wounds rendered by decades of political infighting following 9/11 that flowed from the extreme nature of partisan politics beginning in the late 20-teens.

But, people were somehow inspired by this ‘Space Museum’ idea, and so it grew and took hold. Ordinary people were prodded to ponder and weigh the merits of the proposed museum for ‘All of Us’. A place floating in space 250 miles above our heads. The rally cry was simple, as a species we needed this right now and if we could pull it off, if we could actually do it, it might truly stand as a commemoration for everyone everywhere of what we knew we were capable of achieving as human beings.

The moment that the idea first sprang into consciousness is easy to pinpoint. A letter was read aloud by an attendee speaker at the AAM annual museum conference in 2018 during an average session, the letter was in closing to the speaker’s presentation and it came to her from an elementary school class in Peoria, Illinois. They wanted to know one simple thing; “When would the first museum in space open?." The kids were prompted by their teacher to come up with an idea for a museum celebrating all Earth’s creatures, plants and peoples. And like children often do, they picked the obvious if not perfect place for their museum: up.

Looking back now, and as I sit here in the museum lobby, gazing out the panoramic window with a view of Earth below, the sharp-edged disk of ‘Terra’ cutting across the blanket of space, it seems a bit easy to forget that once, the shock of taking on such an enormous task seemed crazy. But when the initial ‘nuts’ of it passed, a buzz brewed up almost overnight and soon everyone harbored an opinion about the ‘Museum in Space.'

That idea once read out loud in that modest professional meeting gained its own momentum; it spread and grew. The response from some more exuberant corners of the world was almost immediate if not crazy. “Hey why not!” Collectively and indeed with a bit of what became known as ‘Earth Patriotism,' many coalitions of ‘regular’ folks began to scurry about and to take on, for no other reason than cause itself, the job to make it a reality. And these were not just museum people (although there were many of them), but all kinds of ordinary humans.

Pushing back against the aforementioned but no doubt legitimate concerns and resistance held by many people, the ‘believers’ simply began work on solving the problems. Collectively engaging in a process of pooling creativity and human resources on a project management scale not previously witnessed. In retrospect, it now appears much less a heroic effort than a simply practical one. Frenzy was in fact the only means for overcoming the inherent inertia and for getting the job done. At some critical point, the ISSM project simply gained an uninterruptible momentum.

By combining talents across the board design schematics were drawn up and engineering challenges were presented, researched, developed, resolved and manufactured. As it turns out the irony may be that getting the space museum ‘building’ funded and built and even launching the components into orbit was less a grind than what was needed to overcome the gravity of curating the content for a museum intended as representation of an entire planet. It’s not worth rehashing any of the specifics, suffice to say there was a lot of hand wringing, teeth gnashing and even perhaps a few bruised knuckles. But the work got done leading to an unsurpassed achievement a framework for the first ‘Off-World’ museum.

To be clear, it was a story of human will put to the test. The museum development portion was nothing short of an emotional marathon. Grasping at messages, meaning, reverence, relevance, identifying iconic imagery, artifacts, specimens and objects and weaving all these into a shape and finally something with form and real substance. Exhibits had to be developed, designed, built and shipped…” INTO SPACE!”

It was the rocket fuel octane version of ‘Collect, Preserve & Interpret.' In the end, the international team of museum workers were able with the help of visionary engineers to grip real presence. It was a difficult needle to thread because egos are always in play and yet common cause to complete the dream was the arbiter of the process and allowed success to be plucked from the dangerous clutches of vanity and too much of any one form of individual expression. It wound up being a truly UNIFIED thing. They built a package that works. I am here now floating a bit above the bench below me a witness to that success.

Today the International Space Station Museum swirls above the Earth and while visitation remains somewhat limited, the ability for casual travelers from all walks of life to make the trek up here grows all the time. No pilgrim who encounters this museum experience, walks away unchanged. Along the museum’s Bio-Map corridor, an arboretum and garden walkway of living plants worldwide thrives suspended above the clouds. With root-balls gently cradled in glazed dew dripped cases plant life drift in zero gravity, floating across a backdrop of the sunlit side of
the earth, every word trails off into a whisper and emotions are turned fundamental and raw and become too difficult for even those poets who have visited the museum to render.

The adjacent and aptly named Ark of Memory captures people’s imaginations not in their heads but somewhere in their hearts. One can feel individual emotions being manufactured within this visual capsule of objects 254 miles straight up. Artifacts and specimens in twos, a pair each selected from every country on earth below, distill visually what we are capable of as a species when our intentions are simple but our gestures grand. It is what defines us human beings to see the products of our hands framed entirely by the place we call home.

And I would be remiss and truly not a museum person myself were I not to marvel at the display mechanics. The Ark display is itself an intricate network of filament threads that crisscross the chamber top to bottom and side to side intimately and invisibly holding the hundreds of objects safely. Definitely a nominee for the mount-makers ‘Hall of Fame.'

And there is programming! The very first school group to visit the ISSM will be fittingly enough, kids from Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in West Peoria, Illinois. They arrive next month by space bus, compliments of a grant facilitated through the American Alliance of Museums. Just exactly what the children will be doing during their visit remains top secret however, both the earthbound members of the ISSM Education Dept. in Florida and the two members of the museum’s rotating staff on board the space station guarantee an experience. No duh!

I need to wrap this up but indulge me regarding two more things. While most of you have seen the images of ISSM and its exhibits streamed through every format and social media resource I have to mention following.

What is a museum without a ‘Beast’? What is a museum without a signature attraction? Well the ISSM doesn’t disappoint. The world’s largest and most complete Plesiosaur, a Jurassic monster all razor teeth, arching ribs and endless neck reaching over 90 feet in length swims across its very own cosmic capsule. This incredibly fragile and nearly complete fossil specimen could have never been mounted on earth safely because of the natural stresses on the fragile material due to gravity’s relentless pull.

Instead the creature floats almost freely in Zero G held together in position safely by nearly invisible glass rods and filaments and accented by deep blue liquid-like waves of light that pass through the mount. The best part – Visitors are able to float weightless around the extinct reptile viewing it and evening turning its aquarium-like tube 360 degrees, communing with every facet of the extinct evolutionary wonder.

Finally, the incredibly anticipated Arts Future Gallery will open very soon. With the international call for entries complete and the judging now completed, artists from around the world are beginning the process of uploading their files to be replicated by the Museums array of 4 – 3D printers. The idea for creating a sculpture competition utilizing the 3D printers that were used to make building parts during the museum’s assembly came from earth bound veteran museum exhibit preparator Michael Paha in Kansas City. An artist himself who worked on the team that developed the Ark of Memory exhibit, Mike suggested that the 3D printers could be used to create new sculptures for the art gallery by artists below. The first exhibition will feature pieces designed to turn freely while attached by a tether to a traditionally styled pedestal.

The beauty of the International Space Station Museum is that there was no one person, no genius responsible and no solo maker of this place. It belonged to everyone and now stands as a truly collaborative effort. It is ours altogether. In 2018 when the idea for this place was set in motion those citizens were not fully prepared to imagine or predict such an outcome as this. But because they possessed a true spirit, their vision never dimmed and their hand never stayed or interrupted.

What the Earthlings of 2018 handed to us in 2040 was more than a gift. They established new rules for engagement. 2018 handed over inspiration to 2040. We now possess a tool in the form of this Museum in space that will flourish in the hands of an as yet unknown future interpreter. A newer version of ourselves, a giver to give form to our hopes and compassion and perhaps even on occasion to our sorrow. This museum represents a new and collective sense of perspective and worldwide self-confidence. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Building a National, Distributed Museum

It sometimes seems like every new museum with national ambitions wants to be located in DC. Near, if not on, the National Mall. This despite the difficulty of succeeding in the shadow of the fabulous, free Smithsonian museums (a challenge that contributed to the demise of the Corcoran Gallery, and may be a factor in the current troubles of the Newseum). Today on the Blog, Elizabeth Williams and Tracey Mitchell tell us about an alternative approach to building a national museum through creating outposts across the country, each tailored to local conditions. Liz is a founder and President & CEO of the National Food & Beverage Foundation. Tracey is the director of the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Getting started in any new endeavor is always a matter of appropriate capitalization and a realistic plan. And of course a dose of imaginative megalomania, bubbling gently below the surface. But raising the capital for a new museum can be an exercise in chasing your tail – by the time you reach your fundraising goal, the cost of the project has risen by 10% or more, making it impossible to begin. When the National Food & Beverage Foundation (NatFAB) was formed in 2004, we were an organization trying to create a new museum without having agreed on exactly what form it would take. We were also beginning without an angel donor or a governmental agency behind us. After mounting a few pop-up exhibits, on a scale that we thought manageable, we opened the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in 2008 as a small regional museum about food and beverages in a mall in New Orleans. That space served as our incubator for five years.

Gradually we began to deepen and broaden our collection, our exhibits, and even our resources. In 2013 we moved into our current home, a larger building that gives us space for an integrated restaurant and bar, as well as a demonstration kitchen. We are very fortunate, but we have grown slowly and gradually. We did not raise enough money to be a large organization on our first day.

Southern Museum of Food and Beverage, interior

We found that people from outside of the geographic region covered by SoFAB, also have a desire to have their food and drinkways represented in a museum. So we began to conceive of a network of regional food and drink museums linked together around the country. Together they would form a national museum, although not one under one roof in one place. We plan to build this network using our proven strategy of starting small and growing organically. Our first step in this direction will take place in Los Angeles, where the NatFAB is launching the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum. PacFAB will become the second star in what we hope will become a growing constellation of museums that taken together will form a single American food and beverage museum.

Distributing a food and drink museum via multiple locations is an intuitive concept; identity and place are at the heart of our business model, and will determine the form and support of each location. In Los Angeles, on the eve of opening in our newly acquired location, we are pausing to reflect on who we are and how we operate. Our LA programming so far has consisted of pop-up events at various locations, but our constituents—home cooks, consumers, agricultural business, large and local, food industry proponents, restaurateurs, chefs, bartenders, and grocers—don’t seem to mind. They have a sense of ownership in our work. We’ve been able to evoke a sense of home and celebration engaging people through their senses, introducing them to history, science, and cuisines in a way that makes it immediately present, even if they have to do a bit of traveling around town to see our exhibits. 

NatFAB provided the start-up funding for our west coast location, but now PacFAB has formed its own subsidiary organization and is conducting its own fundraising. Currently, the funding is through private funders who are involved in the food industry, such as restaurateurs, chefs, and investors in food concerns. In this region, growers’ influences reach beyond the local to global, and we hope to bridge borders and approach supporters in countries where imports and businesses are who have an impact on cuisines and culture here on the West Coast. Historically, there have been some interesting connections involving food and beverages between West Coast and Peru, for instance. Some of these connections are obvious, like Mexico and Southern California with Sonoran food. The history of cuisine in this area crosses the abstractions of political borders, so what we will be offering from PacFAB pertains to the Pacific region as a whole and not just the Pacific coast of the United States. We also get a financial boost from the fact that the Pacific and Southern outposts of the Food and Beverage Museum can share back-of-house services, such as accounting, marketing, and technology, 

Always fascinated by the way the lure of nutmeg and peppercorns motivated the exploration of the world, Liz Williams was lucky to be born into a family of Sicilian heritage in New Orleans. She grew up eating in two great food traditions.  She is a founder and President & CEO of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, which includes that Southern Food & Beverage Museum, the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Boyd Library . She coauthored with Stephanie Jane Carter, The Encyclopedia of Law and Food. In 2013 AltaMira published New Orleans: A Food Biography. In 2016 her book, co-authored with Chris McMillian, Lift Your Spirits, was published by LSU Press.

Director of the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum in Los Angeles, California, Tracey Mitchell, is a native of New Orleans. Having grown up on Julia Child’s cooking shows, her mother imparted her love of cooking and food.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Connected Museum of 2040

I hope you've had a chance to read your print copy of Museum 2040, or to download a digital copy. If you’re a little confused about why the magazine is set in the future, read my introduction to this special issue. As I noted in that post, one of the hardest things to project is the rate of adoption of a given technology. (Roy Amara at the Institute of the Future encapsulated this truth in Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the impact of new technology in the short term, underestimate it in the long term.) Today Tiffany Fredette, offline marketing and graphics specialist at Displays2go, offers her thoughts on how far some relatively new technologies will have evolved in by the year 2040. Displays2go is one of the advertisers supporting this special issue of Museum magazine.

In the year 2040, “the internet of things” will no longer be a talking point—this technological network will practically be interlaced with our DNA. Trillions of connected devices will be transmitting and gathering data seamlessly behind the scenes. Augmented and virtual reality will be a part of everyday life, not just something to experience via a cool gadget select friends or relatives may have. Together, these advances will transform what it means to “visit” a museum.

Even before you enter a museum or gallery, your devices will be gathering data based on your conversations at home. When you remark to your partner, “We should really take the kids to the Museum of Science,” your personal artificial intelligence assistant will start checking calendars, schedules, modes of transportation, and the interests of your family members. Knowing that Tommy loves dinosaurs, it will notice the upcoming opening of a new fossil exhibit. It will scan for days when you have no meetings scheduled for work, and cross check traffic projections. By the time you ask, “When’s a good time to go to the Museum of Science?”  it will promptly reply “Friday, the 24th of next month, at 2 pm.”

Connected devices will be directly integrated into the fabric of museums and exhibits of every kind. When patrons walk through the doors with their own connected devices, the transfer of information will happen unobtrusively.  Museums will use the collected data to personalize the experience of any patron that visits for a tour. Don’t like to read the labels? No problem – an audio clip will play as you stop in front of the artwork. Not sure of the time period in which the work was made? Simply look at the art and ask, “When’s this from?” aloud—the audio will play automatically. Want to experience a museum visit the ‘old-fashioned way’, i.e. a very basic walking tour? Then that’s what will be offered to you, because the museum will have saved your preferences from previous visits.  

How will augmented and virtual reality come into play? Of course people will still make traditional trips to a museum. But what if you wanted to visit, without physically going anywhere? Those same connected devices will be your guide and mode of “transportation”. By 2040, virtual assistants will be a ubiquitous home appliance. Simply saying “Virtual assistant, bring me to the Max Ernst exhibit at the museum” will transform the space before you with a high-resolution hologram. Or synch with your virtual reality glasses, and you’ll be immersed in the exhibit without having to leave your front door. By 2040, VR may stimulate all five senses. Imagine being able to smell a botanical garden 3,000 miles away!

School field trips to museums will be completely reimagined as well. No need to bus 50 or more students an hour away, wasting gas and spewing hydrocarbons. With virtual reality, teachers can take the children on an adventure without having to leave the school building.  Putting culture and immersive history at students’ fingertips (via haptic gloves!), will enable us to increase the knowledge and appreciation of generations to come.

What will this mean for museums themselves? Will staff be downsized, and some positions become extinct? Perhaps, but new jobs may be created. Will some museums be forced to close? Probably not. The rise of virtual visits will only highlight the multisensory advantages of going to a museum IRL (in real life). Just as the rise of digital retail is leading stores to emphasize the pleasure of actually seeing, feeling, and touching items; museum visits will emphasize on-site experiences. Virtual and augmented reality will represent merely an alternative option. Physical institutions will still appeal to the human element; even as they enhance their exhibits with dynamically interactive, digitally transformed presentations.

Museums and places of culture will always have a place in the world. As with anything, staying ‘up with times’ is the key to their continued success. What will a museum look like in 3010? Now that is beyond my comprehension. What I do know, is that companies like Displays2go are in it for the long term. We’re here to support the needs of the modern museum, and we’ll continue advancing our offering to meet those needs into the future.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Museum 2040: Some Thoughts on the Future from Alberta Museums Association

Meaghan Patterson, CEO, Alberta
Museums Association
I hope Museum 2040 has arrived in your mailbox, or that you have downloaded a digital copy. If you’re a little confused about why the magazine is set in the future, read my introduction to this special issue. As I mention in that post, I am immensely grateful to the advertisers who were willing to play along with this unconventional approach. Some created ads that are, themselves, bits of immersive fiction. Others offered to contribute some content for the blog. Today, Meaghan Patterson offers some thoughts about the future based on her experience as executive director/CEO of the Alberta Museums Association.

Museums just aren’t what they used to be. The past decade has seen a significant shift in the way museums operate within their communities. Our current global reality is one of shifting demographics, increasing environmental worries, rapidly changing technologies, and economic uncertainty. The resiliency and optimism of our museum sector has been put to the test, and these changes have been viewed as challenges and opportunities for learning and for growth. They are opportunities to educate ourselves and our communities while empowering museums by demonstrating the importance of the work that we do. With long term sustainability as the goal, museums have been working to reposition themselves in their communities, collaborate with new partners, seek funding that supports long-term planning, and use a multi-sectoral approach to finding innovative and inclusive solutions.

These changes were met at first with some resistance and some uncertainty, both within and outside our sector. Some museums that rolled up their sleeves and tried to get involved were asked not what they could contribute to the conversation, but why they were at the table in the first place. In Alberta, initiatives such as the Alberta Museum Association’s (AMA) Community Engagement Initiative and Future Coalition Summit helped encourage both museums and their potential community partners to reconsider the role of museums in their communities, and to foster a true understanding of community engagement and social responsibility. Now, empowered with a greater understanding of how those values directly connect to the success and sustainability of our sector, museums are beginning to make proactive changes towards deeper community connections.

Looking forward, it is more important than ever for the museum sector to position itself as vital to the success of communities, and to understand that this repositioning relies directly on the relationships museums have with their larger environment. Museums know that a strong, vibrant future requires a focus on two realities: that museums have a crucial role to play in creating and maintaining healthy, happy, successful communities, and that engaging in socially responsible work is crucial to maintaining relevancy and resiliency in increasingly unstable times. In short, museums are demonstrating and making clear that communities need museums as much as museums need their communities.

In the future, museums will continue to facilitate conversations about issues that matter. They will utilize their position as trusted sources of information by continuing to invest in programs and services that have positive impacts. They will draw on the inspirational and creative work that has been done by other museums. In Alberta, we have shining examples such as the Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau’s partnership with the Central Alberta Refugees Effort to support and provide services to new Canadians, or the Peace River Museum, Archives, and Mackenzie Centre’s focus on encouraging conversations on mental health and wellness and the lasting impacts of residential schools. The AMA is also an active supporter of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. Museums will develop and strengthen new partnerships, and demonstrate a commitment towards real change.

Museums and the museum sector will continue to see significant changes going forward, particularly in the next ten years. As museums both large and small continue to enact change and take on these challenges, they will be supported by each other and by their sector, and encouraged to focus on community involvement and support in their long term planning. Our vision for the future is ambitious, but our museums are engaged, resilient, and innovative. Our sector has embraced, adapted to, and learned from challenges, and it has a bright future: one in which museums continue to utilize their diverse skills and their creativity, affect positive change in their communities, and are fully recognized and valued as hubs for growth, empowerment, and learning. #MuseumsDoMore

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What Can Museums Learn from the Harvard Business School?

 Joy's law: no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else. (Attributed to Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.)

I’m pleased to see the registrations rolling in for the working session “Don’t Raid the Cookie Jar: creating early interventions to prevent deaccession crises.” The Alliance is organizing this meeting in partnership with AAMD, AASLH, AAMG and NEMA* to try to create some practical early detection systems and practical intercessions for budding crises. It’s taking place in Cambridge, MA on December 14 and 15, and you can read more about it in this earlier post.

Several people, seeing my social media posts on the convening, have asked me whether it is a Center for the Future of Museums project. It isn’t, at least not directly. The Alliance is tackling this issue to further our strategic focus on thought leadership, and it is true that CFM is the Alliance’s major thought leadership initiative. However, use of funds resulting from the sale of deaccessioned collections isn’t inherently a futurist topic. It is very much a problem arising from inside the museum field, with which we have grappled for decades, though how we resolve the issue may have profound implications for the future of our sector. (More on that in a post to come.)

However, having been asked to help develop the agenda and act as lead moderator, I bring a CFM approach to the endeavor. CFM’s gaze is always directed outside our field, trying to discover what museums might learn from other sectors. Since the meeting is being hosted by the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, I started knocking at digital doors of the Harvard Business School (HBS). Surely, I thought, for-profit companies must on occasion find themselves caught between ethical rocks and financial hard places. My colleagues and I had a number of discussions with various faculty about how they teach related materials, and how this approach might be relevant for museums.
 Nien-hê Hsieh,
assoc professor of business
administration, HBS

As a result, I am enormously pleased to announce that Dr. Nien-hê Hsieh, associate professor of business administration, will join us Thursday morning, setting the stage by leading participants through a case study from the HBS. Professor Hsieh teaches Leadership and Corporate Accountability to first-year MBA students and to Executive Education participants in the Program for Leadership Development. He joined the HBS faculty from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics and served as co-director of the Wharton Ethics Program. Professor Hsieh is well-positioned to help attendees explore real-world strategies for taking considered action when both ethical and financial pressures come to bear.

And that’s a challenge facing our December convening. It’s going to require a massive act of collective will to resist gravitating yet again to a discussion about on ethics, and think instead about practical solutions. But I’m looking forward to trying this approach, especially with the help of one of the “smart people who works for someone else.” (See Joy’s Law, at top.)

*Translation: Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD); American Association for State and Local History (AASLH); Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG); New England Museum Association (NEMA)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Introducing Museum 2040

The November/December issue of Museum mailed out yesterday, as well as going up on the web. (This issue of the magazine is available as a free download for members and non-members alike).  When you open your print or digital copy, you may notice something a little odd. We published this edition a little early—23 years early, to be exact.

This bit of chronological legerdemain serves as prelude to the tenth anniversary of the Center for the Future of Museums, which falls in 2018. The goal of this exercise in “future fiction” is to help you investigate one possible future and think about how our organizations might respond. As you read the stories in this issue, I hope you ask yourself, “Do I think this could happen? Do I want this to happen?” And, perhaps most importantly, “Does this have to wait until 2040, or can I make it happen now?”

I hereby award futurist points to any reader who asks “in which version of the year 2040 do these stories take place?” Of course one of the main purposes of strategic foresight is to help us think about many plausible ways the future could play out. This issue of Museum is set in one specific future that might result from existing limits and challenges playing out over coming decades. This scenario, dubbed A New Equilibrium, was developed with the input of many people inside and outside the museum field, drawing on mainstream research and projections on demographics, technology, the economy, environment and other sectors. For example, in this version of 2040:
  • The US population is older and more diverse than it is now. The ratio of retired people to people of working age (so-called “old-age dependency”) has climbed to 38% from 25% in 2017. 
  • Economic stratification has continued to grow in the past few decades. The top 10% of families now hold 85% of the wealth in the US, while the bottom 60% hold 1%.
  • In education, there has been significant growth in the number of private schools, and charter schools now serve 15 percent of the public school population (triple the number in 2014).
  • Impact philanthropy has become the dominant guiding principle of individual and foundation funding, and nonprofits are expected to provide concrete, measurable data of how they have improved the environment, or people’s lives, in order to secure support.
In the face of these challenges, museums have prospered. Attendance is robust, our organizations are financially stable, and our visitors, staff, and board members reflect our communities.

The scenario in place, I sent an invitation out through the Alliance’s professional networks for people willing to immerse themselves in this version of the future, writing content that explores what museums are doing in order to thrive in the face of these challenges. There were a few ground rules:

Congratulations to the newly accredited museums
of 2040
Authors had to stay within the bounds of this particular scenario: a future created by current trends playing out over the next decades. For example, they could posit colonies on the Moon or Mars. (After all, Elon Musk is spending billions on his plans to colonize Mars, hoping to launch the first flights in the 2020s). However, they couldn’t introduce massively disruptive events such as a global fatal pandemic disease or a nuclear world war III, or invoke the most extreme estimates regarding climate change.

Authors were only permitted to use the names of real museums if they themselves represented that institution, or obtained permission from the organization in question. For this reason, you may notice many, many museums with names similar, but not identical, to existing organizations.

Authors could write as themselves (from the perspective of being 23 years older than they are now), or they could invent fictional personas reflecting people they imagine will be working in our field by that time. For example, Sarah Sutton attributes her opinion piece on museums, equity, and environmental sustainability to an environmental activist named Ocean Six.

Given these prompts and these constraints, what stories did people invent? In addition to Sarah’s (sorry, Ocean’s) musings on the next frontier of green, that is. Rachel Hatch, program officer for community vitality at the McConnell Foundation, gives us a funder’s take on how museums are supporting the creative economy in 2040, envisioning how universal basic income might create a cadre of “citizen artists.” Adam Rozan’s keynote from the AAM 2040 annual meeting explores how the very concept of “museum” has changed over time, coming to encompass roles that used to be siloed in libraries, community centers, schools, and places of worship. Omar Eaton-Martinez writes about the newly formed US Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the role museums can play in healing and remembrance. (In this future, Omar holds the position of secretary of the Smithsonian Institution where he is, in the present, intern and fellows program manager for the National Museum of American History. And President-elect Sanai Eaton-Martínez, who is creating the TRC? That’s his daughter. 😊)

Nicole Ivy, the Alliance’s director of inclusion, took over the Community section of the magazine, crowdsourcing input on what museum jobs might exist in 2040. (My favorites include poet-in-residence, digital fabrication specialist, and spiritual services director.) Together, Nicole and I tried to ensure that the magazine as a whole reflects the diversity—of race, culture, age and (non-binary) gender—we hope will come to characterize our field.

Though it is immense fun, writing from the future did pose some challenges, notably the willingness to relinquish control! While I took the liberty of writing a few key elements into the issue, our authors were the primary world-builders. As supporting researcher, I tackled another key challenge, looking for credible projections from mainstream sources to feed the writers’ work. For example, at the Bureau of Labor Statistics I found projections on labor participation that assess the impact of a growing population that is both older and more diverse. Several authors wanted to flood various areas of the country, and we spent hours manipulating the Surging Seas Risk Zone Map to test their propositions. One of the hardest things to project is the rate of adoption of a given technology. Roy Amara at the Institute of the Future formulated Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the impact of new technology in the short term, underestimate it in the long term. Many, many of the 2040 authors wrote about virtual reality—which, of course, is an exciting, shiny technology just beginning to come into its own. By 2040, will it be so embedded in our lives as to be unremarkable, still struggling to go mainstream, or will it have fizzled out? Read the issue to see what our authors envision for museums and VR.

Another challenge was maintaining internal consistency. Authors were given free rein to embellish this future, adding details in keeping with the spirit of the scenario’s parameters. This necessitated much tweaking as we tried to bring the details of different articles into alignment. At the twenty third-and-a-half hour, I was frantically texting authors from the airport as we tried to resolve contradictory statements regarding museum visitation in two of the features. I wouldn’t be surprised if a reader with an eye for detail finds inconsistencies we missed—please point them out.

My enduring thanks to all the authors who spent countless hours polishing their pieces (and for their patience with my suggested edits and tweaks.) There is a full list of their actual identities on page 54. I am particularly to Susie Wilkening for creating the two-page By The Numbers overview of this future and for helping me search for all sorts of credible “numbers” to flesh out our scenario. And I want to give a shout-out to all the advertisers who supported this unconventional issue, particularly those who played along with the scenario. You will see their visions of future products and services scattered throughout.

Museum 2040 is only the beginning of a much longer exploration of this and other potential futures. In coming months, I will use the CFM Blog to share additional content riffing on the New Equilibrium scenario: authors sharing the thought process behind their stories as well as additional future fiction. Some essays will explore interesting plot points appearing in the magazine stories, such as the link between universal basic income and citizen artists; potential museum uses for the open, secure, distributed digital ledgers supported by blockchain; and the role of museums in national reconciliation.   

You can play too! Enjoy the full issue, with our compliments, by downloading a free PDF copy here. In addition to reading and discussing the contents in your workplace, I encourage you to put your digital pen to paper and try your own hand at immersive future fiction. You can access a synopsis of the New Equilibrium scenario here, to inform your storytelling. Pitch your ideas using the comment section, below, or email me at emerritt (at) aam-us.org with the subject line Museum 2040.

As part of our tenth anniversary celebration, CFM will publish scenarios describing other potential futures—bright and dark, mainstream and unexpected—throughout 2018, together with a guide to using these stories as a tool for institutional planning. I look forward to helping you imagine the many ways these futures may play out, as well as the strategies museums will create to thrive no matter what comes.

Yours from the future,