Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reinventing the Historic House Museum: MJT meets the Civil War

Here is another brief brain jotting as I take a break from writing TrendsWatch 2015.

I’ve been vastly enjoying blog posts and tweets from Frank Vagnone, author of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums. I love the way he systematically challenges every assumption about what a house museum is and how they operate. He inspired me to set my imagination loose  on reinventing the genre, and here’s my nugget of an idea for an historic house I would like to visit: the Museum of Alternative Histories. 

Alt history is the imaginative fiction of “what if?” It starts by identifying a key event that shaped our current world, and asks how things may have played out had that event taken a different turn. (Here is a list of such “what if” questions and associated fiction.) Livy pioneered the genre in about 25 BC when he explored what might have happened had Alexander the Great marched his armies west instead of east, and gone to war with Rome. In 1836 Louis Geoffroy imagined what would have happened had Napoleon successfully invaded first Russia and then England. Given the wealth of (real) historical detail an author can draw on in crafting these scenarios, alt history is a useful exercise in how to explore the Cone of Plausibility, and develop skills for imagining the various ways history might play out from this time forward.

Enter the alt-historic house. I imagine a house, in Charleston, say, which reflects three histories of the United States: the one that actually occurred (at least in our timeline); one in which the Confederacy staved off the Union and the South became a sovereign nation; and one based on the premise of Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, which imagines a world in which John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry succeeded, leading to a full-scale slave revolt and the establishment of an independent black nation called Novo Africa.

Unidentified African American Woman with Book. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1861-1865
From The Civil War in Missouri
[The daguerreotype above, for example, could depict Ms. Sarah, a slave belonging to the Harris family of Charleston, Ms. Sarah Harris, free woman of color, or Ms. Sarah Harris, personal secretary to the finance minister of Novo Africa.] 

There are a number of ways the interpretation could play out:
  • The “house” could in fact be three adjacent row houses. The experience starts at a kiosk outdoors, where a visitor chooses the outcome of a key event, and then is directed to the house that reflects the consequence of that turn of fate. The interior of each house is a snapshot in time, as if the residence had just stepped out and might be back any minute. There might be a meal half-eaten at the table, dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, an unmade bed. By perusing the photographs on the walls, reading the correspondence lying on the desk, even peeking into the account book for the household, visitors are encouraged to deduce who lives there, and how their lives were affected by the key event. The three houses will be designed to echo each other in ways that play up both the similarities and difference between the timelines.
  • Alternately, there could be one house, almost empty (perhaps containing some basic furnishings). Visitors could trigger the interpretation for any of the three timelines through their smart phone (recordings, augmented reality overlays for the rooms, biographic notes on the residents).
  • Or, a la China Miéville’s The City and the City, evidence of all three timelines could exist physically in one house, at one time. The visitor would be challenged to untangle the clues, deducing which artifact, which bit of evidence, belonged to which version of history. As in the redoubtable Museum of Jurassic Technology, the contents of the house would be a combination of the absolutely true, the slightly warped, and inspired fictions, and it would take a bit of detective work for a visitor to unravel what fit into which category.
I love the way MJT keeps me on my mental toes. That little element of doubt makes me examine every label with extra care, and puts the responsibility for making a determination about "truth" back on my shoulders (where, in the end, it should always belong). An historic house with the same playful approach could encourage people to understand that history is not inevitable, but contingent. And that history that runs in the other direction (into the future) is contingent as well. That, in turn, might remind people that they are active players in determining the direction our timeline will take, and that they themselves are powerful agents of change. 

Well, I’m going back to writing TW15, now, but I’d love to hear your reactions to my idea for an alt-historic house, and also your best idea for re-envisioning that sector of the field.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Futurist Friday: The Encrypted Archive

Here's a challenge for GLAMS (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums): how can we guarantee the privacy of donors who want certain records to be kept from the public until a certain date? This article in The Economist kicks off with a chilling story of how Boston College was forced by the courts to release tapes by former leaders in the Irish Troubles. The archive had promised the material would not be made public until after the death of the donors.

It's bad enough when paparazzi (or a skilled research historian in search of the next hit popular biography) are sniffing around for scandal. When law enforcement gets into the act, a collecting organization can be legally powerless to enforce the conditions of a donation.

Enter the "dark archive"--encrypting digital records in such a way that they CAN'T be read until some date in the future. The Economist article outlines two approaches to the challenge: 

  • lock a digital archive up with encryption that can't be broken with current methods, and trust both that no one can crack the code too soon, and that someone will crack it eventually. Either assumption might be faulty, of course. (Consider artist Jim Sandborn's experience: 24 years ago he installed "Kryptos"--a puzzle-sculpture containing an elaborately encrypted message--at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. Now, exasperated that no one has cracked the last bit of the code, he's resorting to giving hints.)

"Kryptos" by James Sanborn, Picture from Wired

  • use a "bank and trust" model that distributes pieces of the encryption key to a set of guardians (public organizations such as libraries, or lawyers). Some risks of this approach can be mitigated (e.g., build in redundancies to ensure no part of the key is irrevocably lost) but it is still vulnerable to valid legal challenges (even if the number of subpoenas involved, potentially needing to be served to organizations or individuals across the world, might slow things down a bit.)

Now Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain (director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society) has received a $35k grant from the Knight Foundation to pursue the second approach, and he plans to have a prototype of the system running within nine months. 

This article is firmly grounded in the present, but it leads naturally to today's Futurist Friday assignment about the implications for our field. Read The article and consider the following:

  • What is the most sensitive information you keep in your digital records? Who or what would be damaged, if that data were compromised?
  • Are your mission, and collections, such that you can imagine the government requesting access to private data you hold, and imagine your organization fighting the request?
  • Does your museum (or library, or archive) accept donations with restrictions as to what information will be made publicly accessible, and when?
  • Are there types of information (like collecting locality information for fossils or for threatened species) that you only release to vetted users?
  • And finally, given the growing challenges to keeping any data private (the accelerating threat of data hacking; rise in legal actions forcing the release of data held by public institutions) what strategies will your organization deploy to secure your records. Can encryption play a role? 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: On Ethics, and Tiara-wearing Punk Grandmothers

#VivienneWestwood #Kenya #Tiara #Ethics
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, November 18, 2014

On Philanthropy and Paternalism

I’m immersed in writing TrendsWatch 2015 for the rest of the month, which leaves limited bandwidth for blogging. For the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing brief thoughts, the kind of “here’s a 15 minute essay on why I think this story is interesting” I usually post in Monday Musings.

Today’s quickie was inspired by this article in the New York Times:

Which shares the news that billionaire Barry Diller has announced his plans to provide $130M to turn an abandoned pier into an off-shore park in New York City. The city, state and Hudson River Park Trust are being asked to kick in another $39.5M towards the costs.

All good, yes? Who wouldn’t like the prospect of a “futuristic park built atop an undulating platform 186 feet off the Hudson River shoreline with a series of wooded nooks and three performance venues, including an amphitheater?”

Well, I don’t know because (and this is the point) they didn’t ask. Diller commissioned the design without public input, and the Park Trust allegedly hide the nature of the project when changing the legislation governing the part to pave the way for the project.

 Artist's rendering of the park, as presented in the
NYT article. Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio 
Not to bash the Dillard’s intent, or his generosity. He has also promised to run the park and pay its operating expenses for 20 years.

So what’s my problem? Three things:
  1.  If you want to give people a gift that you expect them to use, you ought to ask them what they want. Contrast Dillard’s process, for example, with the extensive input (gathered through over 160 community meetings) used to shape the much more modest 11th Street Bridge Project in DC, which likewise will create a park out of an abandoned river structure. Not that there isn’t room for vision and leadership, but so often visions get built, and then sit empty while the founder wonders why nobody comes.
  2. 20 years of operating support sounds great, but after twenty years the city (or the Trust, or whoever) has to pick up the costs. What are the chances that the Dillard family foundation, relying as it can on its endowment, will have established a sustainable, self-sufficient business model by then? And to that point;
  3. How will this park and its performance venues affect the overall cultural economy of the community? The article notes two other projects in the works (Culture Shed at Hudson Yards and the Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center site) that may compete for the same audience. Set in Stone, the 2012 report from the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, has documented the overbuilding of culture in the US between 1994 and 2008. Is it doing us any favor to build a cultural infrastructure too big for the cultural carrying capacity of the Chelsea Pier area?

So yes, philanthropic impulses are great. And sometimes (as with Andrew Carnegie’s libraries) they can be of long-term benefit to the nation. But as we enter a New Gilded Era, when the pendulum swings from grassroots cultural project funded by local populations and local government back to culture as envisioned by the economic elite, we’d better tally the costs we have to bear in the long term. Gifts don't always give you what you need, and they aren't always free.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Futurist Friday: Alt History & Alt Futures

Ever wonder how the present would be different, if some some key event in our past had torqued just enough to propel us into a different sector of the Cone of Plausibility? Exploring such scenarios is the realm of "alternative history." Some alt-history is fanciful (most steampunk fiction, for example), some constitute thoughtful, scholarly exploration of our timeline. (For example, how would WWII have turned out if the Allies had not launched a campaign in North Africa?) 

Alt-history, like futurist scenarios, doesn't have to be textual. Here is a map of an alt-Africa , by Nikolaj Cyon, envisioning a timeline in which Europe did not colonized that continent

Map from BigThink post by Frank Jacobs
Cyon's alternate timeline diverges from our history in the mid-1300s, when (in his universe) some tweak in the genome of Yersinia pestis made the Black Death even more deadly than it really was. What would have happened if the Muslim Empire overran a depopulated Europe? How would culture have flourished in Africa, absent the Western slave trade? 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: read this post by Frank Jacobs about Cyon's map and the logic underlying his conclusions. Then (if you work in a museum) stroll through your galleries, or the storage rooms, and think about how they (or their counterparts) would look different in Cyon's universe. Whose portraits would hang in your halls? What artifacts would represent "primitive" cultures? Who's point of view would drive the interpretation? I'd love to hear what you come up with, in the comment section below, or on the corresponding post on the CFM Facebook page. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Save Our Sleeping Sculpture?

#Trash #Popup #architecture

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

Monday, November 10, 2014


If you aren't exploring Medium yet, you should. This blog publishing platform is turning into my go-to place for browsing and expanding my horizons. The recommendations by Medium itself seem rather random (no, guys,  I really am not interested in "Bedbugs: the untold horror story"), but you can search keywords and follow folks who's taste you trust. For example, I'm following Mar Dixon (of #AskACurator day fame), Jacob Harold (CEO of the nonprofit watchdog group GuideStar USA), Rob Walker (journalist, author, co-instigator of the awesome "Significant Objects" project) and Ed Rodely (associate director of integrated media at the Peabody Essex Museum). 

To get you started, here are a couple articles recently recommended by other folks I follow:

Lucy Bernholz (author of the excellent P2173 philanthropy blog) pointed me towards "The 36 People Who Run Wikipedia,"  about the world's largest self-organized, all-volunteer endeavor. Some wiki of these uber-editors spend over 20 hours a week on Wikimedia-related tasks, rewarded only with badges. This illustrates the amazing potential for passion to drive significant levels of volunteer engagement. It's also an interesting peek behind the scenes at non-traditional ways of structuring authority and participation. 

Seb Chan recommended The Sixth Stage of Grief Is Retro-computing. I'm not sure what resonated for Seb--I'm sure he, at least, recognized the archaeological fragments of software the author mines for meaning. For me it was a chance to hear a familiar story in a new voice: of the importance of finding a network of kindred souls who take your passions seriously, even when you are just a kid; on the episodic nature of adult friendships, in a world where you may intersect with people you love only once every few years. 

And if nothing else, follow Code|Words:technology and theory in the museum on Medium. I'm going to keep hounding you to read this excellent, ongoing series of essays instigated by Suse Cairns, Ed Rodley, Seb Chan and many other of the most insightful thinkers (and eloquent writers) in our field. 

So go. Read. Write. Recommend.