Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bringing a Collections Catalogue to Life

When the Walker Art Center launched their redesigned website in 2011, it was hailed as a “game-changer,” changing the focus of the site from the museum as destination to the museum as content provider—a portal to all things related to its mission. This was a great example of breaking the bonds of skeuomorphism (in this case, a website that recreated the functions of a set of print museum brochures) and take full advantage of how digital publication can be truly different from print.  Last month the CFM Blog featured one example of how museum publications are evolving in the digital realm: “Curious,” the Royal British Museum’s new multi-sensory journal. So when I heard that the Walker was exploring the creative limits of digital publication, I invited their staff to tell us about the project.

Emmet Byrne, Design Director

On June 30th, the Walker Art Center published the first volume of its Living Collections Catalogue, its contribution to the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative. As a contemporary art center dedicated to presenting the most innovative visual, performing, and media arts of our time, the Walker conceived an online serial publication that would be tied to its acquisition strategies and collections-based exhibitions.

I have learned, from this project and from all of our online publishing initiatives, that creating new publishing platforms can change how an institution works and thinks. When our departmental blogs went live in 2008, they gave everyone in the institution a voice, which resulted in new ways of contextualizing our programs and communicating with niche audiences. When we launched our redesigned website in 2011, it changed the way we think about interpretation, about the services we provide as a contemporary art center, and even the definition and scope of who our audience could be. In many ways we are still figuring out how to live up to the promise of this platform and our relationship with it changes day to day.

The Living Collections Catalogue project exemplifies this change in our thinking. We realized early on that the platform we were creating to host collections-based research could also guide this research and have a positive affect on the exhibitions themselves.  Having an online publication for each upcoming show—something that can be turned into a template and produced faster than a traditional publication—gives the curators a new format that directs their thinking in a consistent framework. The themes reflected in the wall labels can be fleshed out, illustrated with images and rich media, linked to the wealth of information in our collections database and shared with an incredibly broad audience. We hope that this new publication process will complement and strengthen the collection exhibitions process.

Designers know that “visual rendering”—making something look real even when it is still speculative—is an essential strategy for moving an idea forward. As a publishing platform the Catalogue exists somewhere between a rendering and a prototype: highly developed but still somewhat speculative frameworks for future content, only made real once they’ve been used. As museums respond to the influence of the internet on how people consume content, it behooves us to understand how our publishing initiatives not only push our content out to our publics, but how they change our own organizational culture.

Robin Dowden, Director of Technology and New Media Initiatives

The main takeaway for me is the challenge and excitement involved in creating something completely new based on a sophisticated understanding of book publishing and online initiatives. The Walker is an award-winning book publisher and a leader in field of museum work on the web. What happens when we try to bring the best characteristics of each of these two worlds to bear on a single project? The Getty initiative is about creating new models for the future of scholarly collection catalogues, and from the outset we were interested in bridging the gap between the database and publishing, playing to the strength of each depending on the information (knowledge) we were sharing.

The iterative and dynamic nature of new media runs afoul of traditional publishing in so many ways, from the editorial process to the role of the designer. For example, we built an authoring tool to create essays, the most bookish piece of our catalogue in terms presentation and versioning. The tool allows “a user” to construct an essay as a series of multi-column sections composed of various document elements including text, pull quotes, images, rich media, and slide shows. We imagined the tool would be used by an editor or subject specialist assigned to the volume (a role in book publishing traditionally assigned to the designer). Building the tool was a very new media approach, reflecting our penchant for systematizing content production schemes, but we misjudged the process for laying out the essays, media selection, and workflows: authors were not necessarily writing to the medium. We found we needed someone unafraid of the technology and possessing an understanding of various assets and resources—internal and external, identified and not—to work with the new media designer and volume content editor on page layouts. We needed a much more layered and iterative approach (e.g., dropping in footnotes at the very end and editing in pieces as content becomes available) for efficiency and quality of final product. Going into volume 2, we certainly have a better understanding of what’s involved but the fact remains that traditional author, designer, editorial roles and workflows aren’t a perfect match with online publishing. That said, the evolutionary nature of the work, from constant changes in the medium and platform to our understanding of them, is what makes this work challenging and exciting. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Um, meow?

#MuseumCats Day #Twitter
(Photo from #Hermitage)

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Keeping up with the 2014 Trends: For Profit For Good

It’s been about 6 months since the Alliance released TrendsWatch 2014, so I’m going to blog a round of updates on each of this year’s six trends. In each of these posts I will recap the trend, report on its overall arc in the first half of this year, recommend a recent article (or video, or maybe even a book) exploring the topic, and list one source (blog, Twitter account, etc.) you can follow for related news and commentary.

Haven't read the report yet? You can download a free PDF of TrendsWatch 2014 (as well as past issues of the report) from the CFM TrendsWatch page. You can download a free app from iTunes (the report looks great on an iPad, and the app version includes embedded videos.) If you want a print copy to mark up and pass around, you can buy it from the AAM Bookstore for $12.95 (significant discounts available for bulk orders, in case you want to use the report with your staff, board or museum studies class).  

For Profit For Good: the rise of the social entrepreneurs
A rising number of for-profit businesses are tackling traditionally nonprofit goals. “Social entrepreneurship” is the growing realm of mission-driven business enterprises that view financial success as a way to create more and better good. As TrendsWatch asks, “What if it turns out that for-profit organizations can do a better job than the ‘independent sector’ at solving the world’s problems?

Overall Arc of the Trend
Accelerating, with some bumps. One thing to watch about this trend is whether “impact investing” (investing in for profit companies that have a mission to achieve social good) pulls money from traditional philanthropy. We are looking at real money here, as this kind of investment-for-good is projected to “grow to into a $1 trillion part of the financial market by 2020.” Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, recently co-authored an e-book called “The Power of Impact Investing” that explores how ordinary folks (not just the 1%) can be social impact investors, reaping a modest financial return by supporting social change. On the other hand, the “hybrid” organizations such as low-profit limited liability corporations (L3Cs) and Benefit Corporations, that are springing up at the intersection between for profit and nonprofit organizations focused on social missions seem to be off to a rocky start. These new legal structures have been hailed as a way to combine some of the advantages of both sectors, and attracting support from both philanthropy and investors, however they seem to be spreading only slowly, and some people are raising questions about whether rules governing these entities really enforce transparency and accountability. (Then again, I could raise the same doubts about the often nominal oversight of traditional nonprofits.) Here is a good article from Nonprofit Quarterly reviewing some of these concerns.

Recommended Read
One great article I came across since the publication of TrendsWatch on the theme of “for profit for good” is this piece in Hawaii Business: “Impact Investing is the New Philanthropy.” (I explored some of the implications of this piece in this Monday Musing blog post.) The article describes the work of the Ulupono Initiative founded by Pierre and Pan Omidyar, and describes how these two philanthropists view the intertwined economies of impact investing  (to foster for profit enterprises that address social and environmental needs) and charitable giving (to nurture nonprofits that will, in the long run, become self-sustaining). I highly recommend this medium-length piece.

To Add to your Scanning Feed
The Ecopreneurist: “a blog for and about eco and social entrepreneurs, startups, cleantech, web 2.0 and disruptive business ideas.” Features an eclectic mix of posts that range from ethical fashion to clean energy to socially responsible business practices. (This, for example, is where I read about the guilt-inducing Oroeco app that can calculate the carbon footprint of almost any aspect of your behavior. No pressure.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Futurist Friday: Lend Me an Extra...Limb?

One subset of robotics pertains to cyborgs: "cybernetic organisms" that have both organic and biomechanical parts. 

The artificial limbs that enabled Oscar Pistorius to leap from the Paralympics to  able-bodied international competition replaced appendages he lost as a child. But some cybernetic technologies, such as the additional fingers and arms being developed by MIT engineers (below) could either compensate for disabilities or enhance the able-bodied "norm." 

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch these videos and consider:

  • Are there tasks you accomplish, at work or at home, that would be made easier if you had additional arms or fingers?
  • Can you imagine a time when it is normal, even expected, for people to wear technology that enhances their strengthmobility, even their memory?
  • In a country that values a "level playing field" when it comes to sport, how will devices such as these disrupt the standards by which we judge what is "fair" and equitable? 
  • In a country that struggles with the entrenched disparities of wealth that already stratify our society, will such devices widen the achievement and opportunity gap between those who can afford enhancements, and those who can't? 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: A Vision of the Future Unsullied by the Present

#ecotourism #NorthKorea #Utopia

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Unaccompanied Children at our Borders: Can Museums Help?

 The theme of the Alliance 2015 conference is Museums and Social Value. Leading up to that meeting in Atlanta, CFM will be hosting a number of guest bloggers addressing various aspects of museums and social justice. Last month, Robert Janes led off with a post on museums’ role in addressing social and environmental threats. For our second post in this series, Gretchen Jennings, who has blogged for several years about the need for “empathetic museums,” volunteered to address an issue currently getting much attention in the press: undocumented, unaccompanied children crossing the US border.

Immigrant Boy: photo from CBS News

Why should this question be raised?
In a quick and unscientific poll of other museum professionals, especially those who work with children’s museums or with refugee groups, I find that I’m not alone in asking “what role, if any, should museums play in this national crisis?” But as Elaine Gurian and others have observed, museums are not noted for (nor expected to have) immediate responses to current events, and history museums in particular pride themselves on developing reasoned analysis with the passage of time. There is little in our traditional structures that lends itself to timely responses to current situations. If we museums want to become more actively involved with our communities, especially in our fast-paced global society, we may have to develop a new process and timeline for being responsive. However, while the issue of undocumented, unaccompanied children is one that may seem to have appeared suddenly, it actually has deep roots in many of the communities we serve. And this situation, while most urgent at the border, is gradually and inexorably moving into the entire country as groups of children are being taken in by humanitarian groups in other states.
It seems to me that museums might help the country to address this issue in two ways: by providing humanitarian assistance in collaboration with experienced agencies already working in the field, and by fostering discussion and dialogue in a safe and structured environment.
Collaborative humanitarian assistance
For museums in states and regions housing the families and unaccompanied children in this most recent wave of undocumented immigration perhaps the most welcome contribution would be organizing activities and programming. From what I have read, many children pass weeks or months in shelters with little or nothing to do. Museums are expert at engaging minds, imaginations, and bodies in art, science, and other aspects of the world. In doing this, museums might make the time in limbo go faster, providing some relief from the stress of confinement and separation. Museums positioned to provide such assistance might include those that already have:

  • Staff who are experienced in working with families and children--getting their attention, engaging their minds and bodies; creating, tinkering, working in groups or alone
  • Kits, packets, activities, and workshops already prepared; traveling science activities; perhaps some hardy specimens from live collections
  • Access to materials needed for these activities
  • Devoted volunteers
  • Staff and volunteers with bilingual skills.
Collaborating with other relief organizations could help museums effectively deploy their resources within existing structures for aid. The Houston office of the Children’s Defense Fund recommends working with humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross or Catholic Charities that are already on the scene. They also recommended contacting staff of the members of Congress working on this issue. Museums might also identify and partner with other local nonprofits that provide aid to immigrants. Funders such as MacArthur and the Ford Foundation that already support such efforts might be willing to provide support to add museum assistance to this mix as well.
Involvement through Dialogue: Museum as Forum
In addition to meeting the immediate needs of children being detained, museums can help their communities to explore this specific issue as well as more general issues surrounding immigration and immigration policy in the U.S. Many museums are already engaged in such work, for example through the The National Dialogues on Immigration Project which launched in January of this year, facilitated by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. This public initiative uses historical perspective to foster dialogue among people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds through encounters with the past.  (Training on how to create and conduct dialogue programs is provided by the Sites of Conscience Coalition. Contact Sarah Pharaon, Coalition Program Director for North America, for more information.)
One example of a museum engaged in such work is the
Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, which houses the Gallery of Conscience—an experimental interactive space that uses folk art as a catalyst for conversation and engagement on social justice and human rights issues of our times. Their latest exhibition, Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience, “draws on the work of international, immigrant, native Hispanic New Mexican, refugee, and native traditional artists to explore issues of home, place, displacement and belonging from different points of views and distinct histories: those who leave to find a new home, those left behind, and those who welcome newcomers in their midst--or not.” Gallery director Suzanne Seriff notes “The issue of the children crossing the border has come up in these conversations with the community kids over and over this week, and our exhibit has proven to be a rich platform to spark these discussions especially with a couple of the pieces of art [that directly address immigrant themes.]”

Painting by folk artist Cenia Gutierrez Alfonso
from Cuba depicting a child crossing the Atlantic
on her own with her beloved gallo (rooster) in hand.
Photo by Museum of International Folk Ar

Are there Risks?

Museums located in areas where immigrant communities are large and growing no doubt serve audiences with varying views on how and even whether the U.S. should continue to accept and process immigrants in general and these children in particular. Museums considering involvement either in collaborative work with humanitarian organizations or by initiating dialogue and discussion about this dilemma may face strong opposition from their boards and/or members. This is, it appears, the price of taking on almost any difficult topic, whether it is controversial exhibition content or, as in this instance, linking mission, collections, and programming to complex events in the civic sphere. In deciding whether and how to play a role in either helping the children caught in this terrible situation, or in taking the lead in fostering discussion about immigration policy per se, a museum should be guided by its mission, and by the best judgment of its staff and board.

I am sure there are as many opinions among us museum folk as there are in the communities we serve. Your thoughts and comments are welcome. Also any specific experiences such as the one shared by the Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe would be so helpful. I look forward to the conversation.

Gretchen has worked in museums for over 30 years as an educator, administrator, and exhibition project manager. Since 2007 she has served as Editor of Exhibitionist, the journal of AAM’s National Association for Museum Exhibition. The opinions she expresses in her blog and in this guest blog are her own and are not presented in any official capacity. You can find her posts on the need for and the qualities of The Empathetic Museum at Museum Commons blog. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @gretchjenn.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Exploring the Future of Museums with Learning Revolution

Last Thursday I previewed the upcoming online New Media Consortium conference on July 23, giving you a peek the keynotes by Jasper Visser, Nik Honeysett and Nancy Procter. As promised, here is a look the other half of this twinset:  a free online conference taking place the following day (Thursday, July 24), organized by the Learning Revolution.

Both conferences are structured around four main themes plucked from the NMC Horizon Report>2013 Museum Edition: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device); Location-based Services; Crowdsourcing; and Makerspaces.

I’ll kick off Thursday’s conference with a keynote looking at how these four trends are influencing the expectations of our audiences, and what museums may look like after decades of being shaped by these evolutionary forces. Once I’m off the digital stage, I look forward to settling in for the day to listen to keynotes from Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho (co-hosts of the marvelous Museopunks podcast), Lath Carolson (VP of exhibits at the Tech Museum of Innovation), Barry Joseph (associate director of digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History) and Alex Freeman (director of special projects at the New Media Consortium).

This conference also features breakout sessions selected from submissions from the field. I’m reading through the accepted proposals now, deciding which ones to attend.

One of the valuable features of this conference is its mix of international attendees, and (I hope) participants from outside the museum field. The Learning Revolution Project consists of a series of virtual and physical events that have approximately 100,000 attendees/logins each year, and the project also highlights the activities and conversations of more than 200 partner organizations across the learning professions in the school, library, museum, work, adult, online, non-traditional and home learning worlds. As the Alliance works to implement the vision outlined in CFM’s most recent report—Building the Future of Education—it is critical that we connect with individuals and organizations from all parts of the learning landscape. Other Learning Revolution events include the School Leadership Summit, Reform Symposium (RSCON), Homeschool Conference, and the Library 2.0 and Global Education Conferences. I’m hoping some of the regulars from those events join us for this conference, as well. Sign up, log on, help make them feel welcome, and hopefully they will log off with a better understanding of how museums would be great partners for their work.