Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Slowing Down to Focus on the Art

I cited the international Slow Art Day in TrendsWatch2015 as one effort to encourage people to bring leisurely attention to bear on the museum. As Slow Art Day 2015 is fast approaching—it’s on April 11—I tracked down two museums that have participated in the past and will do so again this year. In today’s post, Michelle Moon, Assistant Director for Adult Programs at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Celeste Fetta, Chief Educator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, answer a few questions about their experiences with the event.

Michelle and Celeste, how did Slow Art Day come to your attention?

"Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile." Courtesy of the
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Michelle: At the Peabody Essex Museum, we believe strongly that art experiences can be deeply transformative, so I’m always on the lookout for unexpected ways to draw people into moments of deeper connection with artwork. When Slow Art Day launched, I understood its potential in part because I’ve been involved in the “slow movement” for nearly ten years as a chapter co-founder and regional governor for Slow Food USA. It’s led me to appreciate how “slow” experiences become opportunities for more meaningful and mindful interactions with our surroundings. I like the way it empowers individual interpretation in non-didactic, open-ended discussion.

Celeste: VMFA is in the midst of a transition for our gallery practice—moving away from strictly delivering information to observation, interaction, dialogue, and discussion in order to engage the visitor in ways that are suited to his or her learning style and/or needs. About three years ago, Slow Art Day found us through a community volunteer and former instructor who organized a group of friends to participate. It’s a natural fit to our revised philosophy of spending time with a work of art to afford a natural pathway of discovery. Now we now offer classes that focus on one work of art for an hour, approaching the piece from a variety of perspectives, and that leads to fruitful discussions.

How has the event worked out?

Michelle: Each and every person who has participated has found it to be transformative, a little oasis of absorption in an otherwise busy culture. Our groups have had some great conversations, and in a society as fragmented as ours, its potential to connect strangers over their reactions to artwork is quite moving. The idea itself has also been a catalyst for thinking about how to bring slow looking experiences to museums on a more regular basis.

But participation has been wobbly - we started with 11 people the first year, then 8, then a low of 3, and last year 6 (including me and my husband). I've experimented with different approaches to running the event, including offering a suggested itinerary of items to view, creating a guide to slow looking, and having an external coordinator. This year, we're going to try offering 3 VTS-based experiences on the half-hour, then convene for lunch and discussion in the museum cafe. I hope having the conversational experiences come first will help break the ice, and perhaps draw in people from the galleries who didn’t know in advance that Slow Art Day was happening.

Celeste:  The artist/volunteer who leads Slow Art Day lets us know in advance of her plans and how she will coordinate sign-ups, usually through Eventbrite. As Slow Art is a grass roots movement, it was natural to let this happen organically, hosted and coordinated by a member of the community. We usually post the event on our social media channels and then that’s it! She handles the rest, guiding the group through the museum and then convening in the café for a discussion afterwards. This works well for us because our permanent collection is free and open 365 days a year, requiring no tickets.

I believe it’s been successful in two ways. The fact that it is driven from our visitor base is a successful example of the transformation of VMFA (and museums in general) from a repository to a place for the community. Our tagline “It’s Your Art!” emphasizes our hope that visitors feel like the collection and museum belongs to them. We welcome people to use the galleries as an extension of their space, a community living room or a place of solace- whatever fits their needs. The way this program is organized and run reinforces this belief.

Slow Art Day is also important because it promotes the part of our gallery practice which emphasizes close observation and discussion of art. Taking time to explore a work of art through a multitude of pathways and honoring each person’s point of view is key to engaging the viewer while honoring art as a catalyst for conversation and dialogue.

Do you have any advice for other museums considering participating in Slow Art Day in future years?

Michelle: SAD was initially developed as a viral, community-driven idea, and I think it would really run best that way, completely external to the museum. But the first year, we had no community volunteer stepping up to organize, so I decided to make it part of our program. An impassioned volunteer leader who's not officially sanctioned by the museum may stand a better chance of activating their own participant community, using alternative/viral channels and personal networks. Making it part of the museum program seems to endow it with too much "officialness." I can't say whether or not I'll re-up yet, but either way, I'd really like to see more participation. It takes a lot of trumpeting to get folks out to try this new experience, and museums have to weigh the cost/benefit of devoting organizational time to a program with a smaller turnout, even if it has high personal impact.

Organizers also need to adjust to the infrastructure of Slow Art Day. It started as a personal project and has slowly developed into a more formal group, so it runs a little differently than many other groups museum programmers typically interact with. They prefer that SAD leaders join an email list, which unfortunately involves dozens of emails per day from all over the world during the weeks leading up to the program - which weighs down my already-groaning inbox. I've communicated with them about it, and though they feel pretty committed to having a robust exchange in the month before the program, they are also listening to their participants and thinking about new engagement tools, including online resource sharing to prevent that kind of message backlog.  Signing up through Eventbrite is also a little bit tricky, especially for museums that already have their own ticketing and reservation processes.

I have hopes that Slow Art Day continues to catch on and grow. The power of carving out a few quiet moments to really interrogate artworks from your own individual perspective is age-old, but we rarely make time for it anymore. People who do feel refreshed, and the discussion afterward helps them feel more connected to others and to their own emotions and intellect. The outcomes are so valuable that the project can be worth doing, even for a niche audience. I look forward to learning more from other SAD leaders, whether in or outside of museums, about this interesting way of inviting independent engagement with art.

Celeste: My advice would be to let a member of the community host and support from the periphery, but be prepared to back up the practice SAD promotes with a similar philosophy in your other gallery programs. It is refreshing to know that people are looking for opportunities to take time with a work of art to contemplate, appreciate (or not), and discuss their impressions. As Michelle mentions, this is not a new concept, but a reboot of an age-old practice.  How great is it that museums can be trendsetters by bringing an old school idea into the 21st century?

If you want to experience this slow event first-hand, check out the list of 2015 venues to find a participating museum or gallery near you. You can also volunteer to host a group at your museum. Either way, let Michelle, Celeste and me know how it goes, via comments on this post!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Musing: Millennial Anti-Materialism

I read an article in the Washington Post last Friday that resonated with some nascent thoughts on the role of museums shaped by audiences born between 1980 and 2000.

The story, by Jura Konclus, looks at the “seismic shift of stuff” underway as Baby Boomers clean out empty nests and downsize into retirement only to find—surprise!—their Millennial offspring don’t want the dinner table, sectional sofa, and 10 boxes of family archives. As she observes, “20- and 30-somethings don’t appear to be defined by their possessions, other than their latest-generation cellphones.”

Charlene Ross on "Curb Furniture"

This is in part a result of the urban renaissance: dense, walkable communities mean smaller living spaces and more reliance on shared space and shared services. In addition, as the WashPo article points out, Millennials store their memories on flashdrives and in the cloud, not in photo albums.  

So here’s my musing for the day: do Millennials attach less value to stuff in general (whether their own possession or in a museum), or do they, even more than their parents, see museums as display cases for things they love? The prevalence of the one attitude or the other will have major implications for museums. I wrote in TrendsWatch 2014 “museums would seem to be in a great position to provide people with the pleasures of vicarious ownership…[in the future] even more people may look to museums as repositories for the stuff they value but don’t want to take care of.” On the other hand, if Millennials value experiences above possessions (another point Konclus touches on), will that shape the focus of museums, away from contemplation of the collections and towards participatory environments? 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On Morning Coffee & Museum Activism

Last weekend, Starbucks announced it will stop putting the slogan “Race Together” on coffee cups. Their spokesperson said this was a previously scheduled move, but to many it looked like a response to the flak the company has been taking over this initiative.
Photo from Funny or Die
(along with more snark)
Race Together is the latest in a string of campaigns implemented by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, which have included
tuition reimbursement for workers, “Create Jobs” to raise money to fund loans to small businesses , and politely pushing back against open carry laws. Most recently Shultz announced “Onward for Opportunity,” funded by his family foundation, to train soldiers for civilian jobs, assisted by Starbucks and other corporate partners.

While there was some snarking about the earlier campaigns, Race Together provoked particularly virulent responses. The Twitterverse lit up with complaints from customers who didn’t want to be ambushed with a dialog about race before they’d ingested their morning caffeine (“honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I've had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”), and from baristas being encouraged to initiate these discussions (““Being a barista is hard enough. Having to talk #RaceTogether with a woman in Lululemon pants while pouring pumpkin spice is just cruel.”). Snark aside, it is clear that many people on both sides of the counter felt deeply uncomfortable with this corporate prompt.

Given the swelling national discussion about race, power and prejudice (conscious or unconscious), why are so many people slamming the big S for tackling the issue? Particularly in a market shaped by Millennials, 89% of whom indicate they are more likely to buy from companies who support solutions to social issues? As a thoughtful article in the Economist points out, the pushback may stem in part from a perception that Starbucks is milking the issue to enhance its reputation (and profitability), but I think that the particular savageness of this response is due to a perceived lack of “authenticity” on the part of the company.  As the Economist points out, when TOMS Shoes gives footwear to impoverished children it comes across as mission-related. Same for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign for healthy body image. So even if these efforts benefit the companies in question, they seem to be a natural fit—as were the earlier Starbucks initiatives. Fair trade coffee is directly related to their core business. Tuition reimbursement is tied to the welfare of their employees; Create Jobs to the well-being of their communities; Veteran job training to both. Even the “please don’t carry” request was positioned not as a statement for gun control (or against open carry laws) but as being about the comfort and well-being of customers. Race relations may seem like too big a leap, too far from the company’s legitimate areas of expertise or concern. 

Which brings us to museums, and to #museumsrespondtoferguson—an informal network of museums and individuals (including a large cadre of tweeters and bloggers). Many museums, notably the Missouri History Museum and the Newseum, responded to the events in Ferguson with programs, panels, rapid response collecting, even of-the-moment modifications to exhibits. These responses were commendable and widely admired. I think these institutions were granted this respect because their actions come across as authentic—rooted in the their missions, relationship to their communities and to a history of serving in these ways. But I’m sure there are museums for which addressing race relations in America would be just as awkward a fit as it is for Starbucks.

Newseum visitors view artifacts from the Ferguson
protest. (Scott Williams/Newseum,
  photo from newseum.org)
I believe, deeply and fervently, that it is the moral and civic obligation of every nonprofit to make the world a better place. This requires staff to be attuned to the needs of their immediate community and the world, and to the organization’s mission, resources and capabilities. Collectively, museums can help heal countless wounds, large and small. For some museums this will mean tackling race relations, or climate change, or immigration reform through education or through activism. For other museums it may mean giving local homeless children a safe place to play, or feeding people hot soup while they discuss food issues impacting their communities. It might mean trying to prevent the extinction of non-human species by educating people about eating sustainable seafood or saving a local turtle. Or helping veterans heal from war-related trauma. And always, as AAM’s Museums and Community initiative emphasized, museums can facilitate community-driven conversations by making resources, like space, available for conversations and activism initiated by others.

But I get uncomfortable when high-profile coverage by the press results in pressure for all museums to address the headline issue of the day or week or month. It’s good to remind each other to stay alert to the needs of the world, to pay mindful attention to opportunities for our organization to help fill those needs. But I think we have to pay attention to the example of Starbucks, as well—museums have to act from an authentic place to be granted credibility and standing to weigh in. Otherwise, at best we risk using scarce time and resources to have no credible impact, and at worst we appear self-serving and naïve.

So, yes, please, #museumsrespond to all sorts of needs. But let’s divvy up the work, rather than all rushing to the same side of the boat. There is no lack of holes in the world that need patching, and we can each find ones we are best suited to mend.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Ahoy there?

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What Do Ethical Consumers Expect of Museums?

An open letter released today calls on natural history and science museums to “cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate change obfuscation.” The letter, signed by scientists and by one former museum trustee & director, cites the AAM Code of Ethics for Museums, the preamble of which touches on the obligations of our field to preserve the world we have inherited for posterity, and to maintain museums’ integrity “so as to warrant public confidence.”

The letter was organized by a pop-up, mobile museum—The Natural History Museum—that debuted at the Queen’s Museum last year in conjunction with the People’s Climate March in New York City. That museum questions whether museums like the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the National Museum of Natural History have softened their message on climate change as a consequence of receiving significant gifts from billionaire David Koch (who also sits on the board of AMNH)—a concern reiterated in the letter’s text.

Don’t be complacent, reading this post, if you work at an art museum or a children’s museum. The larger takeaway is that we live in a time when museums can’t take public confidence for granted. As I wrote in TrendsWatch 2015, nonprofits aren’t exempt from the ethical lens being brought to bear on the world, and museums can’t take for granted that people think we are the good guys. Those signing this letter believe that museums, as mission-driven nonprofits, should take a stand on climate change, and this stance echoes larger trends shaping nonprofit behavior. Nationally, we see universities and other nonprofits engaging in fossil fuel divestment. Union Seminary characterized the act of pulling their investment from fossil fuels as “a bid to atone for the ’sin’ of contributing to climate change.” In the U.K., Liberate Tate has staged a series of interventions protesting the ties between cultural institutions and the oil industry.

All of which leads to legitimate pressure on museums to examine how their governance, policies and behavior are consonant with their mission and values, and then communicate their choices to the public. But you can agree with the premise of the letter (museums have a responsibility to be trusted sources of information about climate change), without agreeing on the solution.  As Chris Norris, past president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, wrote in a post on his blog, Prerogative of Harlots,

There are those that say that Koch, as "one of the biggest funders of groups that deny or misrepresent climate science and biggest contributors to climate pollution" has no place in the leadership of an institution like AMNH. But as I look at the challenges facing us, I wonder whether it isn't exactly the opposite. If museums like AMNH can't accommodate someone with Koch's views on their boards without compromising their message, aren't we basically proving what the Lamar Smith's of this world would have people believe - that we have abandoned any semblance of impartiality in favor of outright advocacy? My - perhaps naive - belief is that if AMNH, or any other museum for that matter, has a strong, honest, principled stance on the content of its programs, it should be able to resist the attempts of any board member, however wealthy or powerful, to push those programs in directions that contradict the weight of evidence. It's better to have them at the table than to exclude them and prove Smith and his congressional allies right.”

As with so many controversies that rock our field, the underlying message is actually good: people care about museums and what we do. People see museums as playing an important and influential role in education, equipping our society to work through difficult issues like climate change (or racial justice, or economic equity, or a host of other tremendously important issues). But there is a range of opinions on how to live up to that responsibility. Some people want museums to be agents of change, proactively taking the lead in what they feel needs to be done to save the world. Others prefer museums to be neutral platforms for debate, trusted places where the community can come together to hash things out. (It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do both—museums may have to choose whether they will play the role of facilitator or that of advocate.)

And this process of deciding what is right and good never ends—because our social and cultural views on what a company, for profit or nonprofit, should address changes over time. Ethics issues that are now considered crucial were not mainstream concerns of the public in the past. I touch on a few of these in TrendsWatch: animal rights in the production of art; the collecting of natural history voucher specimens; keeping large mammals in captivity; working conditions of migrant workers building museum expansions overseas; unpaid internships. Or, per this letter, climate change.

But the underlying concern expressed in the missive is age-old, and shaped much of the current standards for museums: how to draw appropriate lines between those who fund museums and those who execute the programs, or between the governing authority and the staff. Museum professionals reading the guidelines for individual donor support may not remember that standard was prompted by the “Sensations” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. While the public may have been more focused on the controversy over Chris Ofili using elephant dung in a portrait of the Virgin Mary, the museum world was appalled by the level of control that the lender, Charles Saatchi, played in the development of the exhibition, and the way in which his financial support and influence were obscured.

The museum field responded by creating a framework to guide the complex balancing act of firewalling intellectual integrity while honoring the contributions of those who make museums possible through their time, experience and money. That framework includes core elements that can guide museums today as they face new ethical concerns, elements that include loyalty to mission, public trust and accountability, transparency and attention to potential conflicts of interest. Whatever role a museum chooses to play: advocate or facilitator, activist or neutral arbiter, the key to retaining public trust is letting daylight into the decisions. As the standards on donor support point out, the bedrock of public accountability is a full and frank discussion of the issue, both with the public and amongst museum professionals.

You can be part of that discussion at the upcoming AAM annual meeting in Atlanta: The Natural History Museum will park their mobile museum bus in MuseumExpo, and encourage attendees to come, discuss, argue, and hash out the issues raised by their call to action. Stop by, weigh in, and help shape our field’s response to emerging challenges in the 21st century. I look forward to hearing what you have to say, in comments on this post, via social media and on AAM’s Museum Junction. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Undersea Sustainability

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Crowdsourced Resources on Open Data

A lot of great folks joined me for last Friday’s Tweet chat on open data. Here’s a compilation of the resources, recommendations and questions shared by participants, to help you
Find me on Twitter
with your exploration of “open.”

(This chat was the first in a series exploring the themes in the CFM forecasting report TrendsWatch 2015. For an introduction to open data and why it matters to museums, download the free PDF of the report. For another opportunity to delve into the forecast, join the staff of the New England Museums Association for an online discussion on April 1.)

What’s going on in and around museums with open data

There’s an amazing collection on the Museums and the Machine-Processable Web wiki of galleries, libraries, archives, museums and related associations with open APIs (including the new IMLS data catalog). The wiki also has a list of cool projects done with these APIs, both links to the project themselves and related articles. These leads are going to keep me busy for months!

Tweeters gave a special shout-out to the National Gallery of Art’s (@NGADC) open access image platform, which contains over 45,000 open access digital images available free for download and use.

Europeana is an internet portal that serves as an interface to millions of digitized records including books, paintings, films, museum collections and archival records.

Trove is a similar portal from the National Library of Australia, with access to over 400k online resources including maps, historic newspapers, music, books etc.

Digital Public Library of America is a national digital library based in the Boston Public Library, dedicated to creating an open, distributed network of online resources from libraries, archives and museums. 

Not directly related to museum, archives, etc., but a great example of the powerful tools that can be created from open government data: GovTracks provides a bunch of online tools for monitoring bills & resolutions, members of Congress and their voting records, as well as access to the underlying data and an API.

Where to go for thoughful commentary on open data

Open Knowledge Foundation (@OKFN) blog posts on open data. (OKFN is a nonprofit, global network of people advancing the cause of making data open and useful.)

Open Data Institute Blog (@ODIHQ). The Open Data Institute (co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web) is dedicated to “catalysing the evolution of open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value.” The institute holds convenings, offers training and certificates, and conducts research.

The World Bank data blog  is “a forum for discussing development data issues and open access to data. Open access to data is a key part of the World Bank's commitment to sharing our knowledge to improve people's lives.”

Professional development opportunity

Harvard’s MetLab holds Beautiful Data workshops exploring what can be done with the collections and visual data being made available by art museums. The next one is being offered July 6-16 this summer, at the newly reopened Harvard Art Museums, and applications are due April 1. It will focus on “difficult collections poised on the edge of the digital/material divide.” The application is competitive and participants receive a housing and travel stipend. Yow. This looks great.

References (papers, talks)

Start with this marvelous essay by my chat co-host, Ed Rodley (@erodley) of the Peabody Essex Museum in which he touts the Virtues of Promiscuity (when it comes to data). It appears in the Code|Words essay series on Medium, which you should be following in any case. Ed’s essay helped focus my attention on the promise and challenges of open museum data.

A "Pragmatic Examination of Linked Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums" by Ed Summers and Dorothea Salo, available on the Cornell University Library site, sets out “some of the reasons why Linked Data is of interest to the cultural heritage community, what some of the pain points are for deploying it, and characterize[s] some pragmatic ways for cultural heritage organizations to realize the goals of Linked Data.”

An article by Trevor Owens (@tjowens) on IMLS’s UpNext blog, “Fitting the Pieces Together: Progress On Linked Data For Libraries,” explains linked open data and includes (what else?) a bunch of links to resources.

A 2013 talk by Will Noel (@WillNoel) on The Commons and Digital Humanities in Museums. [20 minute video. Very watchable] Noel is director of the Special Collections Center at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and founding director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies.

This article by Mia Ridge on poking around in the Cooper-Hewitt’s collections data, and the daunting practical barriers to messing around with 270,000 collections records. 

If you host a discussion about TrendsWatch’s open data section, consider using these questions suggested during the chat to spur the conversation:

  • How will open data decisions will be made when they involve information from other cultures with their own laws?
  • How do we build a community of developers/users around newly accessible open data?
  • How can museums use open data to shape policy- collections management, collecting, conservation plans?
  • How can museums leverage open data to co-curate with communities and the public?
  • How can museums flip to open data as the default instead of the exception?
  • What data do museums generate that they don't realize may have useful/interesting applications?
  • How will open data change the way museums track the spread and success of our applications and data?
  • How can museums get data out to where it will be used?

Finally, here are some recommendations shared by the group regarding who to follow on Twitter for content on open data:

@willnoel (featured in the video cited above)
@mpedson (Michael Peter Edson, director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian)
@tjowens (Trevor Owens, senior program manager, IMLS)
@meretesanderhoff (Merete Sanderhoff, curator of digital museum practice, National Gallery of Dembark)
@sebchan (Seb Chan, director of digital and emerging technologies at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)
@edsu (Ed Summers, lead software developer, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
@wragge  (Tim Sherratt, digital historian, web developer, cultural data hacker)
@justgrimes (Justin Grimes, Ph.D. candidate, University of Maryland)
@crowdconsortium (Crowd Consortium, a national organization that supports research and deployment of crowdsourcing for cultural heritage institutions)

My thanks to the following tweeters contributed the bulk of the content to the chat (which suggests to me they might be good people to follow, as well!)

@shanerichey at @crystalbridges

And you can follow CFM on Twitter @futureofmuseums. I mostly tweet and retweet links to articles, blog posts and research reports both about trends in general and museums in particular. Much of this content does not end up in CFM's weekly Dispatches from the Future of Museums e-newsletter.