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)