Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Ribbit

#VisualOnomatopoeia #museum #architecture
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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Finally Beyond the Hype? Simulcasting Experiences and Virtual Reality

I hope you’ve had a chance to look at TrendsWatch 2015 (download your copy here.) In coming months, a host of guest bloggers will explore each theme in more depth. First up, CFM Council member Garry Golden, a professional futurist who works in a wide range of industry sectors including energy, transportation, learning and (fortunately for us) cultural institutions. This week Garry shares his recent experiences with two technologies related to this year’s themes: personalizing digital tours via the mediation of a human guide; and an affordable entre into one of the hottest areas of wearable technology—augmented reality headsets.

Two of the most hyped promises of the digital age include the ability to use video to visually share our experiences – and the idea of immersive virtual reality that transports us into a life-like digital environment. Unfortunately museum leaders have only been able to imagine how we might use these capabilities to expand access to exhibits and educational programs. New signals in the world suggest that the hype of video simulcasting and virtual reality soon may be more mainstream. Two recent experiences have shifted my thinking and elevated expectations on new ways museums might share experiences in the not-so-distant future.

Scaling-out the Guided Tour
Instagram has mainstreamed social sharing of images but nothing compares to the impact of live video and a trusted guide. A few weeks ago I was treated to a real-time tour of Chicago from the comfort of my home in Brooklyn. My host was a tour guide from Chicago-based Georama. The visual experience was from a chest-mounted camera that delivers what Georama terms vicarious experiences - the ability to virtually explore a destination in real-time via a human guide who is on the ground and able to answer questions from hundreds or thousands of people watching in real-time.

The company has figured out how to bring large audiences into a streaming mobile video over cellular towers. It sounds simple – but in reality it is quite a feat of engineering when we think of all the failed video chats we experience today sitting in a fixed location connected via Wi-Fi.

The opportunity for museums may be in elevating the role of human guides using video based experiences with chat-style interfaces for interaction. New tour capabilities can help reach new audiences – aging populations, individuals with physical disabilities, people abroad or students across the state or country—as well as supplementing the experience of traditional audiences before or after their physical visit. Museums can also start to imagine providing guided tours outside their gallery walls and in the real world where the stories of collection pieces may have connections. .

Georama is one of several players in what seems to be a larger effort to revive and reinvent the ‘tour guide’ as the center of experience design. In many ways the pieces are coming together around location-based content delivery, web broadcasting audio-video feeds and emphasis on storytelling strategies suited for this type of guided experience. Other companies starting to create tour-guide culture include Guidekick which is working with San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Another promising startup is Detour, which has Groupon founder Andrew Mason as part of the core team. Elizabeth featured yet another contender, Omnipresenz, in a recent post on this blog.

Looking at the convergence of trends, museums might soon imagine reliable ways of simulcasting visual experiences to hundreds or thousands of people able without worry of system hiccups that we see today. Real-time or recorded, the future of scaling out shared experiences and empowering human guides is here and an innovation platform for museums to explore.

Virtual Reality and the Inevitable Creepy Line conversation
The second experience happened when my Google Cardboard VR (Virtual Reality) arrived in the mail and transformed my thinking on how close VR was to mainstream applications. You may have noticed the buzz around Oculus Rift--a VR startup acquired by Facebook for $2billion in 2014. Google’s Cardboard VR platform is less well-known, but more accessible, providing  a template that has been used by several low-cost manufacturers who will ship your headset for $20-40.

The ‘box’ design allows you to drop in your Android phone and experience a very impressive virtual reality experience. (There are ways to make this work with iOS devices as well.) Cardboard VR applications range from Google Earth-based city tours to roller coaster simulations.  

Tapping my inner ethnographic researcher, I demo’d the Cardboard VR with more than twenty friends and family at a recent gathering. The ‘wow’ rate was 100% as people of all ages experienced flew over the Earth and down into Bryce Canyon. Faces that initially expressed a sense of ‘this looks creepy’ or ‘I get vertigo’ quickly shifted to smiles once they actually put on the headset. The most common reaction was the comment that ‘this will change how we learn.’

Google’s Cardboard VR is a hack job of VR technology compared to the hardware specific designs coming from Oculus, Samsung, Sony and now Apple. Yet the hack job was compelling enough to transform my thinking of how this conversation might unfold.

The immersive nature of VR is both compelling and a bit unsettling. It can absolutely transform learning and museum experiences as it delivers life-like experiences to people wearing these devices. Museums might use VR to expand access to exhibits or to feature collections that are not placed in the gallery. 3D scans of objects and collections can be easily explored and manipulated in VR.

There is also a “creepy line” conversation that museums will not be able to avoid. More than a few of my family members commented that many people will not want to take this headset off! If we thought staring at our televisions or mobile phones was distracting --- wait for VR to test our desires and attention spans.

The dehumanizing risks are real but VR also creates a sense of pure wonder. How amazing would it be to put on a VR headset and tour any museum gallery in the world – or explore an isolated museum object in three dimensions? It might transform how many collection pieces are accessible to the world through VR platforms.

The market for VR will grow and expand into various hardware form functions. Some will be head-mounted display (HMD) ‘glasses’ that we wear and isolate us from the outside physical world. Other devices such as Microsoft’s HoloLens will be ‘augmented’ in nature and layers digital images on top of real world.  

2015 – 2020: Scaling-up Tour Guides and VR?!
If we thought museums filled with patrons walking around with mobile phones and selfie-sticks was a challenging aspect of digital culture – how do we get ahead of the likely wave of VR and Augmented Reality wearables ahead?!

The promise of scaling out tour-guided video experiences and virtual reality seems to be moving out of the over-hyped stage and into a phase where museums can talk about the new risks, rewards and responsibility for their programs and outreach activities. To get the conversation going among your staff why not sign up for one of these tour-focused platforms or order a VR headset for your teams to explore?! 

For a hands-on exploration of the future of museums and wearable technology, plan to visit CFM's "Museum of the Future" in MuseumExpo at the annual meeting in Atlanta. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Releasing TrendsWatch 2015 into the Wild

I want to say “Tada!” but I think all I have the energy for is “whew.” This year’s TrendsWatch is now available for download, and for the next week I’ll be hovering anxiously over my Twitter feed (#TrendsWatch), blogroll and e-mail to monitor your reactions.  Please feel free to e-mail me directly as well--emerritt (at)

This year the report focuses on:
  • Open data, in the context of the growing culture of “open”
  • The rise of ethical consumerism, powered by the web & by social media
  • Personalization of products, services, communications and experiences
  • The changing seascape of museum risk due to climate change
  • Wearable technology in all its ingenious (and proliferating) permutations
  • Slow culture

At some point after downloading the report you will receive an e-mail inviting you to provide feedback. Please take the time to respond, as this information is immensely useful in helping the Alliance track how CFM’s materials are being used. (And build the case for support—thus enabling us to distribute the publication for free.)

I’ll be giving a session on the report at the AAM annual meeting on Tuesday, April 28 at 8:30 a.m. By then I will have an update on how these trends are playing out in the first third of this year. I look forward to hearing your questions and observations.

Without further ado, here is a preview of each of this year’s trends:

The “Open” Economy: filling the data pipeline

The open culture movement in all its permutations—open source, open software, open government—calls for a fundamental cultural shift from the assumption that information should be tightly controlled to the presumption that content should be made available to everybody, absent a compelling reason to keep it locked up. Open content licensing and Creative Commons copyrights encourage people to reuse, remix and redistribute material. Open source software invites programmers to mess with the underlying code. And the open data movement is racing to get information out in the world, where it can do some good. Governments are adopting open data policies and pouring money into creating open data infrastructure; companies are springing up to exploit these new resources; individuals are exploring how access to data sets empowers them as individuals, citizens and entrepreneurs. Museum data—cultural, scientific, especially operational—has traditionally been closely controlled. In a world pivoting towards open, can museums afford to be left behind?

Ethical Everything: managing the moral marketplace

Increasingly, the press and our peers remind us that each purchase we make and each bite we take has ripple effects on the world. The fact that, in this internet age, we could research and vet the entire life cycle of a product or service, creates an expectation that we should. And this, in turn, leads to increased demand for transparency and accountability in behavior, sourcing and production. United and empowered by the Internet and by social media, today’s consumers wield unprecedented power, and woe betides any company that crosses the invisible ethical line. And nonprofits, traditionally assumed to be on the side of angels, don’t get a free pass in this era of soul-searching.

It’s Personal: one size does not fit all

The industrial era birthed the modern retail industry through the mass production of affordable goods. Handmade and bespoke items quickly became synonymous with luxury: only the wealthy could afford goods made to their personal measure. Now we’ve come full circle, as technology makes it relatively cheap and easy to personalize goods and services to each individual user, or use “mass personalization” to create the illusion of individual attention. This trend is playing out in three arenas: the creation of personalized goods, the filtering of personalized content, and the creation of personalized experiences. Audiences of the future, shaped by the broader marketplace, may expect museums’ products, communications and experiences to be tailored to their interests and needs.  

A Rising Tide: The Changing Landscape of Risk

While politicians and pundits continue to argue about climate change, nearly everyone else—including oil companies, the insurance industry and the U.S. military—are buckling down to deal with reality. Despite Al Gore’s new found optimism about avoiding the worst consequences of climate change, we have a lot to work out. Over a century of data helps us plot the trajectory of change (in C02 levels, temperature, sea level) and model future ecologies, but the data can only inform our choices—they don’t give us answers. Whether and how to build, to move or abandon homes or whole communities, crafting the best approach to weathering storms and tides—planning on this scale will determine what cities and nations look like centuries from now, even as we deal with immediate consequences. Museums, as stewards of cultural heritage, are in it for the long term—to safeguard the artistic, historic and scientific resources they hold in trust for the public, museums need to adapt to a world where change, and water, are the new normal.

Wearable Tech: when “bring your own device” means shirt and shoes

2014 was declared by some to be the “Year of the Wearable Technology Boom,” as functions that currently reside in our computer, tablet or phone migrated to our body and our clothing. Wearable tech is about seamless integration, invisibility and blending technology into everyday life. Tech is a wearable win when it becomes an unremarkable part of what we put on each morning. What that technology does is all over the map. Many wearable devices currently focus on biometric analysis (medical data, quantified self, life-logging), but more broadly “wearables” can integrate any technology (social media, communications, data analytics) onto and into our bodies. The creativity and attention being lavished on hand-held mobile technology may migrate, with time, into wearable tech. And as it does, technology that used to be something we had to pick up, turn on, and remember to take with us will become psychologically integrated into our physical self.

Slooow: when it’s better to be tortoise than a hare

In the past few decades there’s a growing awareness that while “fast” may look efficient, in the end it may not be effective. The “Slow Movement,” composed of distributed, disaggregated individuals and groups advocating similar principles across a range of sectors, represents a cultural shift towards a slower pace of life. It came to world attention in the 1980’s when Carlo Petrini founded the “Slow Food” movement in Italy (now it is international), in large part to fight globalization of food and agriculture and the destruction of local economies and traditions. Now (ironically) the movement is gathering speed, and “slow” is being applied as a business strategy and life philosophy to everything from food to travel to health care, as we rediscover that doing something quickly doesn’t always mean doing it right.

I hope you enjoy giving the whole text a (slow) read.

Yours from the future,


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Shaping the Future of Museum Ethics

 Today the Alliance is launching a survey asking for input on what museum professionals think should be included in the definition of direct care. Sally Yerkovich, Chair of the AAM Direct Care Task Force, explains why this is a pressing issue for the future of museums, and shares how you can weigh in.

As we launch this field-wide survey on direct care of collections, it’s interesting to look back at the forecasting exercise that the Center for the Future of Museums conducted on behalf of Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics several years ago. That exercise asked 75 oracles – emerging museum professionals as well as senior experts, educators, registrars, public relations staff, fundraisers and directors as well as professionals from related fields like librarians and archivists, attorneys, futurists, journalists, and ethicists – to help us think about the ethical issues that would be of increasing importance to museums in the next 15 to 25 years. The oracles identified seven pressing issues and it’s no surprise that the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned objects was among them.

The oracles identified a number of factors that would have an impact upon how the field views both deaccessioning and the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned items. They saw the economic crisis increasing the pressure on museums to monetize their collections in some way. Seventy-six per cent of the oracles felt that the current standards regarding the use of funds would fall short of the kind of guidance the field needs. Generally, their comments focused upon the impact of the increasing financial pressures, the need for changing current standards, and the responsibility of defining direct care.

The oracles predicted that museums would continue to experience financial pressures well into the future. One commented, “The cost of maintaining the world’s permanent collections will no longer be tenable in light of pressing global issues – environmental, social, economic, etc. [The costs of upholding] professional standards of any kind will have to be financed as they can, in order to care for collections.”

Another oracle spoke to the influence of business practices on museums and said, “All other areas of museums have become increasingly monetized and influenced by corporate metrics, and I expect collections deaccessioning will as well. Museums will be forced to balance their fiduciary responsibility to the collections they hold against their ethical obligation to not treat their collections as financial assets.

Some oracles called for changing the standards to more realistically meet current needs.

The current ethical standards are too constraining in times of crisis….It is foolish to bind directors to ethical standards that cannot possibly be met if the institution is to continue its existence. There are cases where museums could be saved were they to sell just a few of their pieces. This should be permitted if they are sold to another museum or non-profit institution that will commit to sharing the piece with the public.

AAM's standard about the use of funding for deaccessioning is stuck in the 20th century. Pretty soon, we'll have tons of stuff but no museums left to reach audiences. Successful museums of the 21st century focus on reaching people first, and amassing collections second. AAM should revise its stance to allow museums to use funds from deaccessioning towards a broader range of activities to encourage organizational health.”

Many of the commentators noted the need for a definition of direct care, especially if direct care continues to be identified by the standards as one of the only two allowable uses for funds resulting from the sale of deaccessioned materials. One of the oracles stated, “In our zeal to avoid making rules, or in the inclination to make ‘one size fits all’ rules for the field, we have done the field a terrible disservice. A creative set of standards, and tools must be taken on by AAM…

Another added, “The lack of definition of direct care is a huge shortcoming in the field. How can we explain the ethical position of our field when there isn’t even a definition?

Finally, one oracle noted, “Collection care will have to [take priority over] acquisition in the use of deaccession proceeds. The alternative will be the death of many institutions holding non relevant objects collected by previous generations without regard to mission or the development of a collections policy.”

In establishing the cross-disciplinary Direct Care Task Force and making the definition of direct care a high priority, both the Accreditation Commission and the Board of AAM acknowledge the time has come to clarify these issues for the field. It’s now your opportunity to weigh in on these issues. From February 17th until March 4, we are asking all museum professionals from a variety of types of museums and functional roles to address the definition of direct care and to help AAM develop a white paper that can be used to guide museums in their decision-making through the complexities of maintaining collections for the present and future benefit of the public. You can take the survey here.

In addition to chairing the Direct Care Task Force, Sally is a consultant to museums and non-profits. She also directs the Institute of Museum Ethics and is an adjunct faculty member in the M.A. in Museum Professions Program at Seton Hall University.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Museums and Online Learning: a student's perspective

Early 19th Century Gallery at
Crystal Bridges
Last December I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, to brainstorm with their staff about museums and distance education. As Michael Edson has pointed out time and again, if museums are to scale up their impact and play a significant role in education in the U.S., they need to exploit the reach of the web. During my time there, Crystal Bridges shared a new initiative they were about to launch: an online course for high school students to take for credit towards graduation. Kirsten Peterson, project director at the educational nonprofit EDC contracted to help develop the project, gave us a brief tour of the course in its pilot form. Anne Kraybill, Crystal Bridges’ distance learning project manager, put me in touch with one of the students who tested the course prototype in 2014. Today’s guest post is by Maddy Windel, a freshman enrolled in a rural public high school, who shares her experience with this foray into online art education.
In October of 2014, I was given the opportunity to participate in the pilot of Museum Mash-Up, an online course being developed by Crystal Bridges.  My English teacher/mother, Kenya Windel, heard about this opportunity through the ARTeacher Fellowship, an initiative that both she and my father have been a part of over the last few years.
Ms. Windel volunteered me for the pilot because she knows I love learning about art in general: What drives the artist? Why did they create this piece specifically? Was it inspired by a big event in the artist’s life? I also love making art. Museum Mash-Up combined all of these interests. I had never taken an online course, but I really wanted to know what one was like (in Arkansas, an online course credit is necessary for all graduates, and I wanted to feel more prepared). I didn’t know that much about the course when I was volunteered. I knew it was about art that could be found at the Crystal Bridges museum—art that has piqued my interest every time I have visited the museum—but that was about it.
The pilot started with an immediate communication push. It was a major part of the course, which was a relief to me because I am from an incredibly small school with a group of close-knit students and faculty. I had never had to deal with not knowing or talking to my teachers before, and I didn’t know what it would be like. The amount of communication I received from the course made this transition much easier. In fact, the course had almost the same level of communication as art courses I’ve taken in the classroom. It also offered much more on the history of the art, and the art projects we completed were a bit more open than those in the classroom. The prompts provided the students with the basics--what the art should be about or reflect on--and let us go from there.
The course centered on examining, interpreting, and discussing art and the process of curating art (how it’s done, who does it, why they do it, doing it oneself). There were also sessions dedicated to making art, whether through sketching, photography, cartooning, or other means, depending on the session and each student’s personal preferences.
Learning deeply about the art and what led to its creation was particularly interesting for me. While I have always enjoyed looking at artwork, Crystal Bridges’ course showed me just how deeply I could go into studying and interpreting art. I developed my knowledge on the fact that the creation of a specific piece of artwork hinged on hundreds of factors that made it what it was. Take, for instance, my favorite pilot session, on the artwork of Andy Warhol and George Tooker. From an unenlightened outsider’s perspective, I could analyze their work in whatever way I chose, but when I dug deeper, I discovered that Warhol insisted he just did art for fun or money, and Tooker was influenced by his neighborhood. I discovered how the artists were raised, how they became interested in art, and how their friendships and their relationships influenced them. All of these factors make the art more intriguing, and I find there is more to look for, or not to look for, a story for each piece.
Analyzing this art online also gave me a taste of what the originals may really be like, both physically and emotionally. No digital image of a piece of art compares to what it looks like face-to-face. While some museums may fear that online exposure may keep people away, I believe it does the opposite. Looking at a piece, absorbing it, may be done to a limited extent on a computer, but I cannot feel the presence of the work--the size, the stature, the beauty—online like I can in person. Online art does serve as a good alternative to those who do not have the opportunity to view the artwork in person due to distance, money, or other reasons, and online sharing gives museums an entirely new method of attracting audiences who might not visit the museum otherwise. Pictures and examples of artwork can help make a mark on a new generation of people who live in this visual age. Images can be of much more help to them than a written description.
I see the Crystal Bridges’ course as a wonderful opportunity to help students understand and engage with art and with other students who share an interest in it. The course allows students to communicate, work with technology that may be new to them, and enjoy, curate, and make art while being guided by their instructors, but not so rigidly that they don’t get to create their own steps along the way. A few parts of the course were difficult for me personally (I’m not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to technology), but eventually all my difficulties were resolved. The pilot was a wonderful experience. It was one I would love to repeat, and I’ve begun to do just that by taking the course for credit this semester. It’s thrilling to be able to look back and acknowledge, even early on, a conscious change in understanding from taking a course like this, and I hope that feeling is one many students can experience in the future through online interactions and in-person visits to museums such as Crystal Bridges that offer these educational opportunities.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is currently offering the course through Virtual Arkansas for Arkansas public school students. Plans are underway to distribute the course to teachers in any state or country. To learn more click here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Have a Seat

#museum #architecture #netherlands
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

More on Trust: The Malleable Past

In my study at home is a beautiful wooden couch handcrafted by my uncle Bob. It cleverly converts into a (narrow, hard) sleeper sofa when you lift the woven back. I was very happy to inherit this piece of family memorabilia, and always referred to it proudly as the Bob couch.

Until the day I came across a picture of it in an exhibit catalog about mid-Century Danish Modern furniture, and realized it was actually designed by Hans Wegner. At which point I did some sleuthing and discovered that the sleeper couch my uncle designed was a different one that used to live on our family’s cabin in New Hampshire. And I don’t know where that couch is, now, dang it.

This made me question: how many other pieces of my family history—even those attached to objects that act as anchors for memory—are false? How many not-quite-true stories have become enshrined in family lore?

If this was just a matter of me wrestling with the truth of my personal history, I wouldn’t be blogging about it. But it encapsulates a problem that faces our field. As I discussed last week, one major reason the public trusts museums is that people see our collections as prima facie evidence of “the truth.” Objects embody memories—they act as the physical placeholders of history. But what about when those memories aren’t true?

Brian Williams’ recent recantation of his account of getting shot down in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 has provoked a flurry of press. Often the criticism or defense of his action hinges on this key point: did Williams lie, or did he truthfully relate an inaccurate memory? His job is on the line, which is bad enough, but the stakes can be even bigger. Last year’s uber-popular podcast Serial, revisiting a 15-year old murder trial that landed a teenager in prison for life, questioned whether the recollections of suspects, accusers or witnesses can be trusted, even if the people in question intend to tell the truth. Podcaster Sarah Koenig tackled the issue head-on in the penultimate episode: Can a murderer not remember s/he had committed the crime? Can s/he reshape memories over time?

Research has established that memory doesn’t store raw, unfiltered footage. Memory selects, edits, conflates and deletes. Even our recollection of high-impact events is strikingly bad. In one famous study a professor of cognitive psychiology, Ulric Neisser, interviewed students after the Challenger explosion in 1986. Three years later he re-interviewed them. “A quarter of the accounts were strikingly different, half were somewhat different, and less than a tenth had all the details correct. All were confident that their latter accounts were completely accurate.”

Now that we are beginning to understand how our brains make and store memories, it is clear that we are more likely to remember remembering (or remember the stories we have told about remembered events) than to remember the original events themselves. We can create false memories. Empathetic individuals can even “absorb” the memories of others, remembering their pain as their own (as dramatized in this fabulous animation—The Bloody Footprint—highly recommend). This ability to revise our personal histories can be tremendously therapeutic, boosting resilience and contributing to healing. But it wreaks havoc with any record of history that depends on personal recollection.

What does the malleable nature of memory mean for museums?

For one thing, it dramatizes the danger of relying on oral histories, which is problematic, given that our field has made such great efforts, in recent decades, to move away from the monolithic authority of the academic expert and to become more inclusive of personal histories recorded and contributed by the public we serve. This openness may make the stories we curate and transmit more relevant and diverse—but not more “true.”

Even documentation may simply enshrine false memories. Take the recent case of the skull of a Civil War soldier put up for auction (skip past the inherent awfulness of that, for a moment). The handwritten label accompanying the skull read “Found at the Benner Farm, Gettysburg, 1949,” and there was notarized documentation attesting that it had been dug up in a garden at the farm. Given that a nearby barn had been pressed into service as a field hospital during the great battle in 1863, conjecture as to the skull’s identity was natural. But the Smithsonian anthropologist who examined the skull after it was pulled from auction (yes, Virginia, there is some decency in the world) saw at a glance it was Native American and far older than 19th century. In fact, he concluded, it was a young Native American man who lived about 700 years ago in Arizona or New Mexico. We will probably never know how this man’s skull ended up in a Virginia field, but it’s clear that without the objective gaze of evidence-based science, he would have ended up in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

Frontal view of cranium taken during the Smithsonian Institution's forensic analysis

It is tremendously important that we foster a broader and deeper understanding of science and the scientific method. Top-notch science writers like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong and Robert Krulwich, top-notch science communicators like AMNH’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, may be our best hope for creating an informed public that makes personal choices based on facts, and casts votes based on science. But that same well-informed public, conversant with the slippery nature of truth, memory (and object labels), may be less likely to award museums with their trust on the premise that our objects, and our records, tell an unambiguous story of the past.