Thursday, January 11, 2018

Artificial Intelligence in Accreditation

One of CFM’s goals is to help museums learn from other sectors, and help other sectors learn from us. For that reason, my colleagues and I cultivate a diverse audience for our work, drawing futurists, games designers, technologists, educators, librarians and many others into conversation with museumers. In today’s post Rhea Steele, COO at the organization that accredits P-12 educator preparation programs, offers some thoughts on how artificial intelligence, our tech focus in TrendsWatch 2017, may transform the work of accreditation programs.

When I read the November/December issue of Museum magazine: Museums 2040, I was energized and excited by the not-so-far-fetched opportunities presented to future museums. Reading the Accreditation Spotlight, I recalled a session focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the American Society of Association Executives Technology Conference. Not just the stuff of science fiction, AI takes computing beyond algorithms and human-created code. AI allows computers to learn from experience, adjust “behaviors” (outputs) to match new stimulus (inputs) and perform tasks of increasing complexity. This type of learning is referred to as machine learning. During the session, we discussed how AI can assist with repetitive tasks, quickly parse large data sets, and “multitask” by monitoring and responding to multiple systems and inputs simultaneously. I began to wonder what would happen if we applied machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to accreditation activities.

The purpose of accreditation in higher education is to improve program quality and assure public accountability, whereas in the museum space, it is to recognize adherence to the standards in the field. In both cases, accreditation systems are dependent on clearly defined rubrics to help volunteer peer reviewers make judgments on the institution’s demonstration of meeting standards. At my organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, as well as at other accreditors, our process is built on is the evaluative judgments of volunteers who are applying our guidelines and decision criteria. A significant amount of time, effort, and funding goes into ensuring volunteers are sufficiently trained and able to interpret evidence both broadly and within institutional context. As you can imagine, the quality assurance processes, including establishing interrater reliability, result in the need for many, many volunteers and a well-informed, detail-oriented staff.  

There is general consensus that the process of accreditation is best conducted by volunteer peer reviewers due to the depth of their knowledge of the field and the nuanced understanding needed to connect disparate pieces of evidence in the context of an individual institution. Can human peer review alone meet the demand for accreditation services? Currently about 1075 museums have been accredited by AAM, compared to the 4000 that have taken the Pledge of Excellence and the estimated 35,000 museums in the US identified by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Slightly more than 1000 people serve as peer reviewers for AAM Accreditation, and a nine-member commission makes all the final decisions regarding accreditation. Could AI enable the AAM program to increase the number of museums served, without a proportionate increase in cost?

AI could help with the quality, as well as the quantity, of reviews. The challenge faced by volunteer peer reviewers is to approach each organization with true objectivity - a peer reviewer who works at a large well-funded institution must surface and set aside his/her implicit biases when reviewing an institution with a different profile. While this system has worked well in the past, can we make it work better with the application of AI?

Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri are all able to interpret natural language commands, IBM’s Watson won Jeopardy, and Netflix makes eerily on-target recommendations for movies and shows I will like. It’s all just algorithms, you might say, and you are correct.  But these algorithms are increasingly complex and sophisticated. Today’s AI-based programs use machine learning techniques (including rubrics and rules) to acquire information and adapt through experience. Our peer reviewers do the same. What if we shift our model and use AI to do what it does best - parse through reams of qualitative and quantitative data submitted for accreditation and provide peer reviewers with an initial assessment of alignment to the standards? How would this all work?

In the same way we currently train peer reviewers, an accreditation AI would be trained using data elements, evidence, rubrics and decisions made by past peer reviewers. We would then run simulations to enable the AI to learn alongside the peer reviewers currently auditing institutions and compare the AI’s recommendations with those of the peer review team and make adjustments. Eventually, the AI would be able to provide absolute consistency in the identification of areas for improvement and misalignment with standards. It could also identify practices that correlate with positive outcomes, thus improving the flow of information on best practices throughout the field. As in many fields beginning to adopt AI (medicine, engineering, customer service), I believe the technology would supplement, rather than supplant, the human role. Peer reviewers will use the AI’s recommendations to collect and refine information requested and reviewed during the on-site visit and use the algorithm’s analysis to inform their recommendations and the decision to grant or not grant accreditation.

As we move further and further into an AI-enabled future, we have an opportunity to review and reframe how we leverage technology to improve our industries. Application of AI to assist in the peer review process of accreditation is one way we can leverage the power of technology and help humans focus on high-value activities. How else can museums benefit from the novel application of technology?

Rhea Steele
Rhea M. Steele, MS, CAE is the Chief Operating Officer for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Throughout her career, she has had extensive experience in museums, non-profits, and universities with key focus on the integration of strategy, operations, and technology. Find her at

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Envisioning the Accessible Future of Peer Review

One of my favorite parts of putting together the recent “future issue” of Museum was asking my colleagues at AAM to imagine how their work, and the programs they staff, such as accreditation and advocacy, might be different in the year 2040. This week Danyelle Rickard, program officer for the Museum Assessment Program, talks about how she put together her story for the Around the Alliance column, announcing the launch of TEAL—AAM’s Telepresence Excellence Assessment Liaison. Her story is a good example of a possible future that might lead you to ask, “does this have to wait until 2040, or can I make it happen now?”

For Museum 2040the recent special issue of Museum—Elizabeth invited me to think about the future of peer review, since it is a vital part of both the Museum Assessment and Accreditation Programs at AAM. When writing my piece of future fiction, I considered how we could make peer review accessible to as broad a group as possible so that our institutions in MAP and Accreditation would benefit from the largest possible knowledge bank of peers in the field, and more professionals would be able participate in this highly valued form of service.

I decided to frame my story around telepresence via robots that enable users to navigate throughout a museum by remote control, hearing and seeing everything as if they were there. Telepresence robots exist now: while not widespread, they are beginning to be used in schools, hospitals, and museums. In 2014, you may have chatted with accessibility advocate Henry Evans who attended our annual meeting in Seattle via a Suitable Technology’s Beam robot. I think peer review is another natural application for telepresence robots. We need to start thinking about ways this and other technologies could help overcome barriers that cause peer reviewers to turn down visits, like limitations of time or ability and the hurdles of travel. This will allow a more diverse and inclusive opportunity to our peer reviewers and museums alike. And as AAM’s Green Professional Network would point out, as we try to create a carbon neutral future, anything that reduces the considerable carbon footprint of travel helps build a sustainable future.

Accessibility advocate Henry Evans visits the
de Young Museum via Suitable Technologies Beam
telepresence robot
The Alliance’s roster of 1,583 peer reviewers includes working and retired museum professionals. Both these groups have the opportunity to engage but are often limited by different factors. Currently employed professionals may have busy work or family schedules to contend with while retired professionals may have limited physical or other health restrictions. People in either group may have mobility limitations. And I expect mobility issues will be an even bigger issue in 2040, when over one in five Americans will be over the age of 65. Currently, one quarter of the Baby Boom generation intends to work until age 70, and the age of retirement may keep rising because people need the income or because they want to stay active. How can we help peer reviewers remain mobile as they age?
Some of the museums that receive peer review visits through our programs are in remote areas and traveling to them can be challenging. Recently an experienced reviewer turned down a visit, not due to time restrictions or willingness to participate, but due to how complicated the travel would have been. They would have had to use a personal vehicle, take three flights, and rented a car for the last leg of the journey, spending two full days on travel in addition to the site visit itself. Not only are travel costs high in cases like these (paid for either by the museum itself or MAP grant funds) but the sheer logistics of a trip like this can become overwhelming for anyone.

Of course, while the mobility afforded by a robot is cool, there are many free technologies that support remote conferencing. Some, such as Skype and Google Hangouts, support real time video connections as well as voice. Heck, you could walk your peer reviewer through collections storage using Facetime on an iPad. But telepresence robots do add an extra dimension to remote participation. Besides the autonomy they provide to someone who may be mobility impaired, when folks interact with people via telepresence robot, they quickly get over the novelty factor and start treating the robot as a real proxy for the person it projects. And by 2040, telepresence robots may be as common and affordable as a laptop computer is today.

Some museums are already using telepresence robots to host school groups or individual visitors (see links below). I challenge the museum community and companies that manufacture these robots to think about their applications beyond tours. They could give small museums access to a great consultant who is too far away to visit in person, if we can find a way to make the robots themselves affordable for the smaller institutions. Could a group of small museums share a robot? What can we in the museum community do to make the opportunities more accessible?

You may know Danyelle from her work in MAP or in peer review where she works to help museums meet their institutional goals by going through the Museum Assessment Program, helping them access the most up to date resources and by working to ensure that AAM continues to grow and cultivate our group of volunteer peer reviewers. If you are interested in finding out more about the upcoming MAP deadline or about becoming a peer reviewer feel free to check out AAM’s website or drop Danyelle an email: drickard (at)   

More coverage of telepresence robots in museums:

A Quick Reminder That Technology Can Be Wonderful: Telepresence robots make it possible for people with disabilities to visit museums.

Remotely tour a museum (at the National Museum of Australia)

Museum at your fingertips: telepresence tours for schools

How robots bring the mob life to you: Special telepresence bots let people with physical disabilities explore cultural venues, such as Vegas' Mob Museum, just like everyone else.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

How I Rewrote the Future of the Anthropocene

The digital edition of Museum 2040 has been downloaded over 2000 times, and I’m tremendously encouraged by the feedback I’ve received from readers. As I’d hoped, museum people are using this exercise in immersive future fiction as a catalyst for discussions around museum planning, in board presentations, even as background material for grant proposals! I think the story of HOW our 2040 authors came up with their narratives is as informative as the stories themselves. In today’s post, Sarah Sutton (who authored her 2040 opinion piece under the name “Ocean Six”) shares how she went about envisioning the green work of future museums. (And if you haven’t snagged your copy of Museum 2040, access a free digital download here.)

Earth’s current geologic time period has been dubbed the Anthropocene because the primary forces shaping this period are “human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric, and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” These altered systems are making it harder for humans to live here comfortably, hence the era’s bad reputation. Logic would suggest, though, that what we have altered already, we can alter again, this time with a positive spin.

Writing My Take for Museum 2040 was a chance to show how museums might help reform the Anthropocene’s bad reputation.  

I used the opinion piece to examine my greatest frustration: “Why aren’t museums doing more about environmental sustainability and climate response?”, then visualized my greatest hope: “Museums are recognized as indispensable in a thriving community.” Here’s how my thinking evolved:

“Why aren’t museums doing more about environmental sustainability and climate response?”

I believe it’s because museums leaders think there is no clear path or mandate for doing more. I see a path, though. Mission and community needs create those paths if museums leaders stop to look. The ways in which mission and need align are often easiest to see in an urban setting where the combined needs of many people intersect with the varied content and knowledge found among museum staff. So I began My Take in the cities, imagining a future in which museums help cities reach their carbon-neutral goals. 
Cities are currently setting goals to reduce carbon-producing energy consumption, but they are making a big mistake trying to meet these goals without their best potential allies: museums. There is a lot of acreage in museums’ landscapes and parking areas, rooftops and exterior walls that could be used to generate carbon-free power. Cities can also use museums’ public outreach, awareness, provide knowledge, and build skills that can lead to public behavior change and advocacy around a low/no-carbon future. Cities can’t build energy infrastructure without public support, and an uninformed public may not support cities’ efforts. Museums, as a trusted public resource, can help bridge the gap of understanding. Museums can support public engagement and fill physical infrastructure needs simultaneously.

Since I know how committed and powerful the museum field can choose to be, I projected that museums will produce so much clean energy that certain parties might actually become alarmed. I can imagine that an energy provider or regulator, or a neighbor, may feel threatened and try to regulate these efforts by reclassifying museums as a utility. In my story, the specter of reclassification is a minor but nerve-wracking blip--I am confident the fundamental construction of museums as NGOs will protect them from this kind of regulation. In the end, decision-makers will recognize the bottom-line advantages of clean energy, and design and planning professionals will understand that sustainable solutions require integrated approaches. City planners know they need help addressing environmental issues and climate change response. I want them to know their best help can come through museums.

“Museums are recognized as indispensable in a thriving community.”
My vision of museums as energy providers is still limited and limiting compared to all they are capable of contributing. My hope is that museums are naturally integrated into the fabric of future communities, and that they help their communities thrive. So, what role can a museum play that is greater, more pervasive, than serving as an energy producer?
Last year, in an article for Curator, I wrote that “Museums hold in one body the diverse physical and intellectual resources, abilities, creativity, freedom, and authority to foster the changes the world needs most.” I believe this with every fiber of my being. If each museum uses its mission to determine which issues it is most effective at resolving, then our collective resources can support a broader variety of effective responses to climate change. So maybe, by 2040, in addition to the examples I give in My Take,  
  • aquariums will have contributed so significantly to coral reef rehabilitation that any surviving island communities can safely fish and sustain themselves again, and fish populations around the world with be healthier and more productive 
  • a consortium of archives and historic sites will have recovered cultural ways of climate coping so that traditional and nature-based communities can continue to thrive in place despite the altered climate
  • zoos and gardens will have perpetuated many threatened species of plants and creatures enough to enable us to create environments in which they can be re-established in the wild
  • museums will have documented and shared the story of the destructive first stage of the Anthropocene so well that stage two becomes the story of how humanity repaired the world. 

My Take acknowledges that, in the future, the benefits of climate response may be unevenly distributed. They certainly are now. Poorer people are overlooked for services and support when wealthier people are not. People living in less-developed countries and with more dramatic climate impacts such as tsunamis, droughts, fires, and mega storms are suffering at a greater degree than most others. People living in rural communities are isolated by distance from research and resources, and the positive impacts of change seem less significant when serving fewer individuals. This is where the example of international sister-city, sister-museums partnerships will be important. Just as museums can be great allies to their cities, those partnerships can be great allies to overlooked, disadvantaged museums and cities wherever they are found.  So many are passed over in favor of other richer, larger, louder communities, but they won’t be if we work to avoid it.

As I see it, there are three kinds of sustainability work for museums to do:
  • reduce human impacts that cause the changes in climate
  • develop responses to protect humans and other creatures, and cultural and natural resources in the face of climate change
  • educate the public so that all can participate in creating change.

That last item is just as critical as the first two; it’s also where I pin my hopes for 2040. If museums hold “in one diverse body” so much that is needed to support “the changes the world needs most”, then to activate it museum must engage humans to create those changes. Humans created this mess, this Anthropocene; we can darn well recreate it with a positive spin.   
Supertrees at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay
Further reading:

SARAH W. SUTTON, ELIZABETH WYLIE, BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS, CARTER O’BRIEN, STEPHANIE SHAPIRO, AND SHENGYIN XU, “Museums and the Future of a Healthy World: ‘Just, Verdant and Peaceful’”, Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol 60, No. 2, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. April, 2017.

Sarah Sutton is a sustainability and climate change consultant to museums, zoos, gardens, and historic sites around the world. She lives in Hawai’i where she developed her alter ego, Ocean Six, who wrote My Take. Ocean Six enjoys being part of an outrigger canoe team, and learning more about the ocean that determines so much of our climate. Sarah is the author of Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites & Museums, and co-author with Elizabeth Wylie of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Sustainability (two editions). You can reach her at @greenmuseum, on facebook at SustainableMuseums, and email

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—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.