Thursday, September 3, 2015

Revisiting the Future of Museums in the New Gilded Age

I recently reread a 2011 post by my former colleague Erik Ledbetter on the effect the "New Gilded Age" may have on museums. He wrote "The decline of the middle class and the reemergence of a true American plutocracy will have, I predict, some interesting consequences for museums. In an era when public budgets and private household wealth are both contracting, museums’ business models will be increasingly upset." As it turns out, he was remarkably prescient in pegging the financial pressures that would lead museums into increasingly tight ethical spots. 

Now I'm thinking about the broader effects of the widening gap between the 1% of Americans who control 40% of the country's wealth and everyone else. I see a plausible future in which US museums bifurcate as well, with one branch of our sector serving hoi polloi, and another providing exclusive experiences that don't involve crowds, mingling with badly dressed tourists or hobnobbing with folks who have not taken a college-level course in art history

The development of exclusive museums would parallel the rise of other bespoke services that are creating a bubble world for the well-off. For example, I just read about Gravity, a bespoke gym for "C-suite" (read, wealthy) clients, with an entry fee of over $2000 and monthly fees of $460. For that you get blood analysis, a 3D body scan, in-house doctors and nutritionists and an app that helps you track progress and compete with other gym members. 

And I've paid close attention to the proliferation of boutique/concierge medical services that charge annual fees anywhere from $500 to $15,000. Ten years ago only about 500 doctors participated in such practices--now that is up to over 15,000. The physicians who choose this arrangement prefer it in part because it allows them to be better doctors. For example, instead of the 10 to 15 minutes allowed by most insurance coverage, they typically spend at least twice as long on an average visit. (This does more than simply create an elite tier of medical care for those who can afford it--some analysts are concerned that if this trend accelerates, it will undercut subsidized care for those who need it, upsetting the fragile balance that provides medical care for society as a whole.)

There is already evidence that this same exclusive, boutique ethos is infiltrating the museum world. On the periphery, there are high-end members-only art clubs for well-heeled, would-be collectors (e.g., The Cultivist). Closer to home, see the rise of private museums, created around personal collections, that can tightly control access to venues. This article cites a number of such organizations in Dallas. The New Yorker ran an extensive article on the  Boros Collection in BerlinAnd Erik noted in his post "In Ohio, an entrepreneur is building a new private railroad museum complete with a purpose-build roundhouse and turntable to house, restore, and display his collection of historic steam locomotives. When complete, his facility will be superior to the majority of public railroad museums in the country. Yet it is strictly a private venture, and the terms, if any, on which it will be accessible to the public remain unknown." (See image below)

I added a coda to Erik's post, asking "Will selective pressure favor museums founded and funded by the new economic elite?" To which I will now add a couple more. Will these favored, "elite" museums be free and open to all (like the Broad), free, but limited, via reservations (like Glenstone), or invitation only (like Deedie Rose' Pump House in Dallas)? And how would this bifurcated future affect the willingness of the one percent to support truly public museums, or of the rest of the population to support public financing of museums as a whole?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Cloud Corridor

#architecture #sustainability #green#urbandesign @AplusD_LA
 #housing #design

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, September 1, 2015

Why are we locking our data away from the public?

When I was researching TrendWatch2015 I sent out a call for examples of how museums struggle with the trend towards “openness” when it threatens traditional ways we have shared (or not shared) our data. Chris Norris, in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum, replied that he and Susan Butts, Senior Collections Manager for Invertebrate Paleontology, had just submitted a paper on that topic to Collection Forum (the journal of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections). For those of you who do not subscribe to that excellent publication, I asked Chris and Susan to summarize the gist of their thinking in a guest post.

“I do not like them in a box”
(Suess, Dr. 1960. Green Eggs and Ham. Boston, Thomas Y. Crowell Co.)

Museums hold collections in trust for the public. We say that a lot, but what do we actually mean by this, and how do we respond when the public demands access to those collections? This is a particularly acute problem for natural history museums, and especially for those that hold paleontological specimens.

From iDigBio Workshop on Digitization of Paleo Collections, Yale Peabody Museum 2013

To understand why, it’s important to realize that the circumstances under which an animal, or plant, or traces left by these organisms are preserved as fossils are very unusual. As a consequence, fossils are quite rare.

For the same reasons, they are also not uniformly distributed. Fossils occur only in certain places, and while it is possible to predict where these places might be, finding them takes a great deal of skill, knowledge and, ultimately, luck.

Locality data – the information about where a specimen was found – is particularly valuable to paleontologists. It may lead you to more fossils at that site, help you predict where new fossil sites might be found, and – when analyzed in combination with data from other sites – can form the basis for research that enables scientists to reconstruct past environments.

But locality data for fossils can also have a monetary value. It can be used by commercial collectors to find fossils which can then be sold, potentially removing them from the public domain. It also represents a potential revenue stream for museums, because of its commercial value to companies doing environmental impact assessments associated with commercial and public infrastructure projects.

Because of this, museums find themselves in a tricky position when it comes to locality data. On the one hand, access to collections includes access to collections data and these data are critical to scientific endeavor and, perhaps equally importantly, to members of the public who want to know more about the world around them.

At the same time, making these data freely available may cut off certain much-needed revenue to museums and lead to important fossils being made inaccessible to researchers and the wider public. In many cases access to sites is restricted by landowners or - for public lands - by law. In these situations open access to data may nurture the thriving culture of illegal collecting that has arisen in areas that are rich in fossil deposits.

Up ‘til now, museums have chosen to meet this challenge by acting as gatekeepers to the data they hold. They often restrict the locality data they make available to the public (for example via institutional websites) either by redacting the data below an arbitrary level of detail (usually the county in which the site is located) or by “fuzzing” the data – introducing an artificial level of uncertainty into the map coordinates of a locality that make it impossible to pinpoint the exact location of the site to more than a few hundred meters.

It’s still possible for individuals to get access to the precise locality data for a fossil or fossil site, but they have to ask the museum for it. When they do, they’re judged against a series of criteria that assess how legitimate their request is; in other words, we – the museum staff – get to decide whether a certain person is worthy of seeing the information.

We believe (and have made the case in a recent edition of the journal Collection Forum2) that it’s time for to reconsider this approach to data access.

With the publication of a national strategy for the digitization of biological collections, the creation of a national coordination center for collections data (iDigBio), and the commitment of $10 million in National Science Foundation annual grant funding for collections digitization, the United States collections community has made a long-term commitment to capture and serve the data held in its collections to the global community.

Inherent in this is the idea that access to these data will have a transformative effect on science and society, opening new avenues of research, engaging academic communities that have not previously made use of collections as a source of data, and helping the wider public make better use of collections for formal and informal education. These noble goals are predicated on the idea that collections data will be made freely available on-line. So in this new, digital world, should museums still be placing restrictions on who can access their data?

Undoubtedly, illegal collection is a plague on paleontology, not just in the US but globally, with Brazil, China, and Mongolia, being prime examples of countries falling victim to removal of paleontological resources. This theft of national heritage often causes great damage to sites, destroying contextual data in the process of removing fossils. But it’s difficult to quantify how much of this collecting results from the release of locality data. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some thefts may have occurred after locality data was published on the web, but in many cases data are also released in the academic press; indeed, this is typically a requirement for publication.

In fact, many fossil collectors have sufficiently detailed local knowledge that they can find sites without having any access to collections data and there are numerous other routes to the information; ironically, some of the richest fossil sites have their coordinates accurately published on Wikipedia. So, while the release of data by museums may assist illegal collection, it is not clear that restricting access to data would introduce any significant barrier to a determined collector.

Furthermore, museums often receive important collections from experienced private collectors, who have legally obtained fossils from sites; museums need to consider that these collectors may not be willing to donate their specimens if the museum is going to turn around and restrict access to the data for people like themselves. It is inevitable that when museums are discriminate between collection users based on their professional status it will have a chilling effect on their relationships with amateur experts.

On the other hand, it could also be argued that the current, restrictive practices cannot be shown to have limited the amount of legitimate paleontological work going on across the United States. But will this continue to be the case, given the current digitization initiative and its goal to increase usage of collections? If the aim is to expand that usage beyond the boundaries of traditional user communities, then any barriers to collections access are a bad thing.

Redacted data offers significant security for fossil sites, but it has greatly diminished utility for any form of research that requires precise coordinate data. This includes many of the studies of paleogeography, paleoecology, and diversity over time that are critical for understanding issues such as climate change. To know that these data exist and to request access requires some prior knowledge of collections operations. Non-traditional users of collections, whether public or professional, may simply not know that they can ask for permission to access restricted materials or realize what they are using is not the highest resolution data available

If a request is received, curatorial staff members are placed in the unenviable position of making a value judgment about whether a particular individual should be granted access for a particular project. This could include deciding whether a category of collections use with which they are unfamiliar is appropriate or inappropriate. Should a member of the public be granted access to data simply because they are interested? Should commercial or private collectors be given access to data if—as a matter of personal or professional opinion—a curator disagrees with all such collecting, even if it is legal?

These questions speak to the broader issue of why we have collections, and the role played by museums and their staff in managing them. In their standards for public trust and accountability the American Alliance of Museums is explicit both that the collections of museums are held in the public trust and that the museum should be committed “to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources” (AAM, 2008). Restricting access is therefore a significant issue, and perhaps more of an issue than some in the natural history collections community have grasped.

Museums have become comfortable – we would argue too comfortable – with the idea of restricting access to collections. In most cases, the restrictions form part of responsible stewardship; without the resources to supervise all visitors, for example, physical access to the collections is limited by the availability of staff and the amount of time that they have to spend supervising visitors. But in the case of digital access, it cannot be argued that access is resource-limited. The museum is making an active choice to withhold something that could be made freely available. Our contention is that this can only be done from a well-justified and supported position.

We believe that for museums to fulfill their duty of public accountability, they must start from the position that all data from accessioned and cataloged specimens should be freely accessible unless:
  • Release of the data would break local, state or federal laws, or be a breach of other codes or regulations.
  • Release of the data is prohibited because the Museum has a prior agreement with the collector, donor, or landowner.
  • There are very specific circumstances relating to the nature of the specimen and/or site in question that warrant restriction of data.

Open access doesn’t mean that all data must be unrestricted – it simply flips the default state to the presumption is that access will be completely open unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary. For example, it’s not enough to specify that publication will inevitably make a site vulnerable to illegal collecting – curatorial staff must consider why that particular site is more vulnerable to poaching than others, based on accessibility, faunal or floral content, market issues, the historical pattern of illegal collection, and other relevant factors.

Transparency is also critical. Museums should have an obligation to advise landowners, collectors, etc. that there is an open access policy for data. We should consider carefully whether it is in our best interests to accept a collection with restrictions on data accessibility, just as we would do with any other form of restriction on use. And it is equally critical that we publicize our guidelines for case-specific data redaction or restriction of data, and that in the rare cases when such a decision is warranted, the online records are tagged with a note explaining what data are being withheld and why.

Here’s another compelling reason to start from a position of “open:” we do not believe that it is possible for a museum to make an objective decision about what level of data redaction is appropriate for future usage, given that one of the main aims of collections digitization is to broaden the usage of collections beyond traditional boundaries. Given that it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to predict how collections may be used in the future, it is equally impossible to make statements about minimal standards for data release that will be valid more than a few years into the future.

In addition, we believe that the greater the range of data that are only made available on request, the more we will be required to make subjective decisions about the use to which the data will be put. As we mentioned earlier, restricting physical access to specimens based on risk parameters is appropriate when resources are limited; restricting access to data has minimal resource implications for a museum that has already committed to web accessibility.

It could be argued that resource availability does come into play once the data have been released. For example, land managers may have insufficient resources to protect fossil sites on Federal land from illegal collecting. In this case, it is entirely appropriate for Federal agencies to place restrictions on the release of data as part of collecting permits or repository agreements should they wish to do so. But it is not appropriate for museums to take on themselves the responsibility of law enforcement when there are other agencies and organizations charged and resourced with doing so.

The role that museums should be taking—a role which is a core part of their mission—is educating the public and private collectors about the importance of collecting in a responsible manner, collecting contextual information, and depositing fossils and data in a museum. We believe it will be easier to make this argument if deposition of the fossils does not lead to them being locked away, along with their data, inaccessible to the public in whose trust we supposedly hold them. This may be an acute problem for paleontology, but it is a principle that is applicable to any type of museum.

1Norris, C. and Butts, S.H. 2014. Let your data run free? The challenge of data redaction in paleontological collections. Collections Forum, 28(1-2):113-118.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Monday Musing: A Radical Proposal on Student Debt

Student debt is a huge issue in our field, especially for emerging museum professionals. So this article caught my attention last week: No more student loans? Purdue University proposes selling shares of students’ future income

Purdue is planning to invite private investors to fund the education of individual students, in return for a portion of the student's future income. Under this Income Share Agreement (ISA) a student's payments to the investor depends on whether they make more or less than they expected after graduation. 

There are a number of non-traditional student loan business models springing up, but many of these focus on refinancing existing federal and private loans, while others are forms of crowdfunding.  The potential side effects of an ISA system
are particularly interesting:

1) In effect, it invites crowdsourced input on a student's career plans. If no-one in a large pool of savvy, interested investors are prepared to bet on your career plans (and debt burden) maybe you should rethink the plan. 

2) It is an opportunity for students to pitch themselves specifically, not just their chosen careers, as "good investments." As this article notes, several companies are working on ISA models that let investors back "young people with brilliant ideas." Maybe this would help identify and fund, early, students with ideas and abilities that would enrich their chosen fields. On the other hand, to the extent that these businesses create an "old-boys" network version 2.0, they may simply reinforce socio-economic barriers to success.

3) It provides an opportunity for any sector (including museums) to literally invest in its future. Museum professionals could support students training to work in museums (whether through museum studies programs or other routes), while getting a modest return on their investments. And (to point #1) they might be in the best position to judge whether a given student, and that student's plan of study, is a "good bet." Museum associations could create investors circles that pool small amounts of money to create a create a critical mass of support.

So, what do you think: crazy idea or potential solution to crushing student debt? If you had it to do again (or are facing the decision now) would you pledge a portion of your future salary to an investor, in preference to a traditional loan?

Monday musings are my way of sharing "brain blorts": brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Call for Applications: Distance Learning Summit on Art Museums & Educational Innovation

Since CFM released Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem in 2014, I've been on the hunt for opportunities to help build the "vibrant learning grid" envisioned in that report. In this post, I'm sharing one of the best that I've found so far: a Distance Learning Summit on Art Museums & Educational Innovation being convened this November by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Museums, collectively and individually, generate great educational tools and resources. All too often, however, these projects are ephemeral, vanishing when the grant funding dries up. Or they remain small scale, rather than achieving significant reach and scope. Anne Kraybill, Director of Education and Research in Learning at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, has been working with me on how to infuse museum programs with an entrepreneurial mindset in order to create in sustainable programs that grow and build on their own success. (This approach builds on a trend I highlighted in TrendsWatch 2014: the rise of for-profit, mission-oriented social enterprises.) We are going to tackle this in November by bringing entrepreneurs with experience in art/education related start-ups to mentor groups of museum staff. The entrepreneurs will learn more about museums, our resources and our work, and museumers will gain useful contacts and mentors, as well as a framework for sustainable business planning.

Crystal Bridges has just issued call for applications for the Summit: this is a competitive opportunity open to educators and technology and media specialists from art museums. Crystal Bridges will cover the costs of participation (including travel, lodging etc.) for participants. 

The goals of the Summit are to explore: 
  • How art museums ensure can that all students have access to high-quality, meaningful, and personalized arts education
  • How art museums can have a more direct and central role in the education of the nation’s students and beyond
  • How art museums partner with educational entrepreneurs to create models that are sustainable and scalable
While the audience for this convening is art museums, I look forward to sharing the outcomes with the field as a whole and, if this works well, finding a way to replicate the model for museums of all kinds. 

You can read more about the Summit, the keynote speakers (I am honored to be one) and the application process here. The deadline is September 16, so don't wait!

Futurist Friday: All Too Human

To add to your TV viewing list: Humans, a new eight part series on AMC. (You can watch all eight episodes online if you have an account with any one of a number of providers.) 

The show is set is set in a "present day future"--business as currently usual with one twist: a company that builds and sells "synths."  These realistic humanoid robots are equipped with sophisticated artificial intelligence and some turn out to be self-aware. 

As has been true from the dawn of TV sci-fi (notably the original Star Trek series), this futurist premise is used as a lens with which to examine very real contemporary issues, for example:

  • What is the natural conclusion of our trend towards automation of work? Robots are already taking over jobs in a variety of fields, notably manufacturing. Robots are stronger, faster, tireless (and don't go on strike).Algorithms are being used to write news articles and legal briefs and prepare tax returns. Heated debates are taking place on the role of autonomous control of airplanes (or, to flip the question, the role of human pilots) and in the near future, of cars. What happens when technology endows machines with at least the appearance of the empathy and compassion that have buffered the so-called "caring professions" from automation? (Such robots are already in development.) Or when artificial intelligence can do work that to all intents and purposes is "creative"? (e-David is already challenging that boundary.)
  • What are the rights of self-aware, non-human beings (living or non-living)? As I noted in an earlier post, this year a court in Argentina granted an Orangutan named Sandra the right to "life, liberty and freedom from harm." In 2012, New Zealand granted a river "rights of personhood"  and appointed legal (human) custodians to represent its interests. It's harder to dismiss these issues when they are presented by an entity that looks, feels and acts just like us. For example, does it constitute rape (or infidelity) to have sex with a synth? Does yes mean yes when consent is dictated by programming?
  If you aren't ready to turn on the tube (or flip open your iPad) read this excellent review of the series by Adrian Cull over on the futurist site IEET (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies). And please do write in with your own review, below. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Purifying Design

#Green #Sustainability #CleanWater @OFFPOLINN @MoMAPS1#Cosmo
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