Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thomas Hoving: In Memoriam

The fall quarter of my second year in grad school, I had the opportunity of a lifetime--I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sure this was one the world's largest and most renowned museums, but more importantly for me, it was the museum of my childhood. My grandparents lived a few blocks away and I grew up with family trips to the museum and playing in the Ancient Playground in Central Park next to the Egyptian wing of the museum. Growing up, the Egyptian wing *was* the museum for me. Entering the hieroglyphic-walled tombs transported me back to the days of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and as far as I was concerned, visiting the Temple of Dendur was like actually leaving the US and traveling to Egypt.

So when I was accepted for a fall internship doing double-duty in both the museum's development and registration departments, I could scarcely contain my joy. Every day as I went into work I would whisper to myself, "This is real, this real, this is real--I am really here!" Fridays, after work, I would often take advantage of the longer hours and roam the galleries, falling in love time after time with each trip through the building to the sounds of mezzanine piano bar.

At some point early on during my internship, I learned that the man who had been director when I was young--and who was responsible for many of the things I loved about the museum--had written a book about his time as director. I made a trip to the museum bookstore, made use of my staff discount and began reading. The book was Making the Mummies Dance. The man was Thomas Hoving.

I couldn't put the book down. Thomas Hoving's writing style was so unapologeticly daring and arrogant it was almost scandalous as he spoke candidly about turning the staid museum world on its ear. Blockbuster exhibitions, posh galas, the Temple of Dendur, the Euphronios krater--all of these were thanks to Hoving. Okay, maybe the krater wasn't a great judgment call, but am I grateful that I was able to see it up close and in person every day? You bet I was and am.

Even though I was already working "behind-the-scenes" at the Met, Hoving's book made me feel even more like an insider, like I was gaining truly secret insights to how the place was run and to how the business of art and museums happened. My supervisor's cautioned me to take his book with a grain of salt, some were even vaguely dismissive. But I came to view Hoving as my unofficial guide and mentor to my new surroundings, offering me a view that I found somewhat thrilling and romantic.

Of course, that is what the book was supposed to do and as the years went on I came to understand why those around me had cautioned me not to take Hoving's word as the be all and end all of either the museum world in general or the Met in particular. He tended towards the sensational over the sensible and his practices were not always best.

But I still love Making the Mummies Dance and there is no denying Hoving's impact on not just the Met but the whole museum field. As one obituary states, "Did he democratize, glamorize or coarsen the museum experience? You already know the answer. He did all three."

Mr. Hoving, you will be missed. Thank you for shaking things up and transforming the museum world.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What Ails Museums (and What Could Help)

Recently there have been several articles and blog posts all talking about the same thing, but approaching it from different angles. The subject du jour? The potential obsolescence of our profession--or to use one author's term, "fossilization,"--and how to prevent it. What are some of the key components of our mass destruction?

-- Not responding to changing demographics
-- Ignoring technology
-- Holding fast to the notion of monolithic structures

Gregory Rodriguez writes in his LA Times article that, according to a study released by the NEA last Thursday, attendance has been steadily dropping in museums for the past few years, largely because museums are not responding to the changing demographics of the American population. While the majority of museum visitors continue to be white, by mid-century the American population is predicted to be half people of color. Rodriguez posits that focusing on wooing the rising educated, middle-class Latino population could go a long way to helping museums stay in business. (For more on this topic, see this blog post)

Matt Matcuk of the Field Museum talks about not changing demographics but rather rapidly advancing technologies. Once again, however, the message seems to be the same: things are changing and museums are not keeping up. Matcuk poses three questions to help guide museums into effective ways of viewing and using new technology.

1. Are we competing with new technologies, or integrating them?
"What we have to offer doesn't compete with technology and is not undone by it. The core of our attracting power--authentic objects, immersive experiences, personal interactions--will continue to serve us, and can only benefit by being explored through today's technologies."

2. Are we hastening our own irrelevance by thinking ourselves superior to contemporary electronic culture?
"Adapting how we use technology in response to our visitors' needs is only a compromise if we view education as an inherently top-down enterprise. But that attitude--"We know what's good for you, and we're going to give it to you"--is no longer tenable, if it ever was."

3. Is technology the "demon rum" of the 21st century?
"New technologies are just like telephones, inviting neither invective nor adoration. They're just there--a part of our world. If places of informal learning focus on the technology itself rather than on the message, our efforts will appear as quaint as a mid-twentieth century car advertisement touting the miracle of the automatic transmission."

Matcuk closes with these words of caution (or prediction):
In the end, places of informal learning are subject to the same dictum that rules the natural world. Environmental pressures will force us in one of two directions: evolution, or extinction.

Finally, Robin Pogrebin's December 11 article in the New York Times suggests that perhaps there is one arena in which museums have been spending too much time "keeping up"--to our detriment. As Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art was quoted as saying, "There is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to museum building." But "keeping up with the Joneses" does not imply strategic planning and as a result, recently there has been a rash of major capital projects--new buildings and major expansions--in the museum and arts world that have been scaled down, are being rethought or have simply been abandoned, exposing institutions as over-stretched and sometimes suffering from poor management.

The question remains, however, if we follow the advice explicit or implicit in each of these articles--become more relevant to rising demographics, approach technology as the tool that it is rather than either as the devil or a god and focus on the sustainability of our buildings rather than their eye-dazzling civic appeal--will that be enough to save us? What else do we need to be focusing on to maintain the health and vitality of not just our organizations but our field?


Friday, May 8, 2009


I finally sat down to watch the much talked about short, "Spark," that was highlighted at AAM last week. I did love it, as the film spoke very directly to what I love about museums: the exalting, cathedral-like spaces; the sense of wonder, awe and curiosity that they inspire. But what I found very interesting about the film was that there was a marked disconnect between the message of the film and all the discussions happening at the conference--formally and informally--about the future of museums.

No one makes any mention whatsoever about how museums engage audiences outside of the museum walls. And considering many museum professionals believe that in the future, museums will have no walls (for example, this noted western museum professional), I wonder how effective this film could really be as a marketing piece for persuading people that museums do indeed matter as the tag line at the end suggests. Is it, in effect, preaching to the choir?

I absolutely agree with the film that museums are places to have enriching experiences, but I strongly feel that by only focusing on the experiences obtained within the walls of the museums, the filmmakers were really only looking at part of the picture.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe all the museum futurists out there who are predicting and working towards greater social media engagement are wrong. Maybe when all is said and done, museums are about physical spaces and the experiences contained within those walls. Heck, I've already sort of expressed that sentiment myself here on this blog.

Regardless, check out the film on YouTube or embedded below. It is copyright the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and produced in association with the American Association of Museums.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

AAM and Twitter Follow-Up

It was too easy to miss comments/tweets while actually at AAM, so I have just gone through all of the tweets tagged #aam09 and #aam2009. Yeah. Here's what I learned:

-- There were roughly 1350 tweets on #aam09.
-- There were roughly 90 tweets on #aam2009, most of which were cross-posted on #aam09.
-- There were roughly 220 tweeters, most of whom only tweeted 3 times or less.
-- There were probably only about 20 or so people who really made use of Twitter during the conference and populated the conversation.

-- Twitter could easily replace blogging as the preferred method for sharing ideas about sessions at conferences. Why? Because it is not reliant on the availability of free wifi! No free wifi in the conference session rooms means an increased incentive to text and tweet instead, despite the fact that the 140 character limit makes sharing in a substantive manner difficult and that the Twitter interface can make it difficult to follow ideas in a coherent fashion and increases the likelihood of losing information. Also, it is quicker and easier to connect with others through Twitter than through blogs--read a tweet you like, follow that person!

Trends from the AAM Conference:
-- Relatively few sessions were actually documented in a thorough or coherent manner via Twitter.
-- A few people were vocally following from home. It is unclear how many people were "lurking."
-- The number one top topic of conversation was the Muse Awards winners.
-- A lot of the tweets were about the host city, food or random facts/trivia from sessions or hallway conversations.
-- Vendors and session presenters used Twitter a fair amount to drum up business.
-- People promoted museums, exhibits and other fun places around the host city.
-- People made book recommendations.
-- Often sessions weren't tweeted, but instead links to notes and slides from sessions were tweeted.
-- I don't think any of the collections/registration sessions were documented through Twitter.

Hot Ideas Being Tweeted:
-- Using technology to engage/reach audiences
-- Content creation
-- Curating conversations
-- Responsiveness to communities
-- Collaborations and community building
-- Predictions for the future

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Voices of the Future Interview

Last week at the AAM conference in Philadelphia, our host, the American Association of Museums, offered all sorts of new and experimental ways to engage. One was to record a Voices of the Future interview. Anyone who was interested was welcome to speak for a couple of minutes on their visions of the future for museums. All of the interviews are now available up on YouTube. Mine is embedded here.

Monday, May 4, 2009

AAM and Twitter

As promised, below are my results from my impromptu and highly unscientific survey on who was tweeting #aam09.

First, a little background.

This is the first conference I have ever tweeted about. In fact, I think that tweeting at and about conferences is still relatively new. And, quite frankly, I am still in shock that Twitter has suddenly exploded in the way that it has--I left my account dormant for over a year because it just seemed, well, silly. So I was very curious to see how useful Twitter could be as a tool to share thoughts about a conference with colleagues both at the conference and those back at home.

I quickly heard complaints, or at least less-than-positive commentary, from various sources: 1) that the quality of the tweets was relatively low, with little content on sessions or lessons learned and more about where people were eating 2) that mostly vendors were tweeting.

The first comment, while disappointing, can be excused. Most people think of Twitter as a personal social space and so are more accustomed to tweeting about meals out and social activity than about the future of museums. Also, the 140 character limit that makes Twitter the micro-blogging site that it is creates an inherent barrier to real sharing of ideas.

But the second comment really peaked my interest: was it true that mostly vendors were tweeting #aam09? Who were all these tweeters who were all a-twitter about the conference, food or otherwise?

So I decided to try to find out!

The results were less than stellar. Now, granted, as @Lidja pointed out to me, there were some big flaws with my survey. I had intended it to be quick and dirty, like a tweet, but she argued that it was too quick and dirty, so as to lack the ability to create meaningful responses. But I was really looking for just an easy way to see if it was mostly emerging museum professionals (EMPs) and/or vendors who were tweeting.

Here are my results. 12 people responded. Then again, I only announced the survey on Twitter and it's easy enough to miss tweets unless you are online right when they happen.

Question 1.
Are you...
10 an EMP (that answers that question, I guess, except that most of the people I was retweeting and replying to are definitely not EMPs...)
2 other (consultant; non-attendee)
1 a mid-career museum professional
1 a vendor
0 a senior/executive level museum professional
0 a volunteer
0 a board member

Question 2.
Do you work in...
4 technology
3 collections
3 education
3 marketing
2 admin
2 visitor services
1 development
1 exhibits
1 programming
1 volunteer/docent management
1 I told you I was a vendor
1 Other (would if)
0 Finance
0 HR
0 Membership
0 Operations

Question 3.
Do you currently work in a museum?
8 Yes!
2 No, but I wish I did.
2 No, and how many times do I have to tell you--I'm a vendor!

Question 4.
Does your museum use Twitter?
5 Yes!
4 I don't work for a museum, but my company/organization uses Twitter.
2 No, but I sure do--tweet! tweet!
1 No, but it wants to.
0 What's Twitter?

I don't have enough respondents for the results to be statistically significant--they could all be spurious and meaningless. But that doesn't mean that this exercise was a waste of time. For one thing, these results have posed all sorts of follow-up questions that I am now mulling over: How big are these museums? What disciplines do the museums represent--art? history? science? Why are they Twittering? Do they find Twitter useful? Would they recommend other museums and organizations sign up and start tweeting?

So really, rather than having results for you, I only have more questions!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

How DO Audiences Want to Use Museums?

Perhaps I am a bit of a hypocrite. Over on the WestMuse blog, I opined earlier that I didn't feel as connected as I would have liked to through the FutureQuest game here at AAM. But at this evening's event at the amazing University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology I felt almost exactly the opposite.

The evening was structured by a group activity--everyone was divided into teams for a scavenger hunt. I opted out, preferring instead to be able to explore on my own and at my leisure, not wanting all that much group involvement with my experience. I think what I really want is to connect with others about museums, but when I am in a museum, I really only want to connect with the objects.

So now the question is, am I a relic in terms of how I want to use museums, or am I not alone in my sentiments? If the answer is the latter rather than the former, then I am quite wrong about how audiences want to interact with museums...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Almost-Live Blogging: Places and Stories

You've probably heard a lot about community engagement through the Internet. I know I myself talk about it all. the. time. But I saw a fantastic example of exactly that today at the Places and Stories session here at AAM.

PhilaPlace is a new initiative by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania that is being designed by Night Kitchen. Although PhilaPlace is not yet up and running, HSP has already begun working with the community prior to launch. PhilaPlace involves "co-constructed narratives" and "connecting stories to places across time." The website will include:
-- Interpretive information
-- MP3 player tours
-- Primary source documents
-- Audio and video clips
-- Photos
-- Layered maps (using Google maps as the base but then adding layers to see neighborhoods back in time)
-- Digital models (to show change over time consisting of static maps based on census information)
-- K-12 lessons
-- Visitor contributed stories

Corresponding collaborative programming will include:
-- Public events (history fairs)
-- Workshops
-- Trolley tours (the whole program actually began this way)
-- Exhibits

The goal of PhilaPlace is to use "reciprocal technology" and participatory technology to bring grassroots involvement to the digital realm. To this end, there will be a MyPhila--users will be able to save their favorite stories, create stories, make their own tours and upload those tours to Google maps. Filters can also be used to view the places. You can filter according to neighborhood, tour, or topic. It is also the hope that the map layers will become populated by visitor interaction.

Challenges faced by PhilaPlace:
-- How to integrate multiple stories for the same place?

Technologies to be used:
-- CollectiveAccess
-- Google Maps
-- Google API

-- Pew Center for Arts and Heritage
-- Connelly Foundation
-- (many more)

For more on this session, please see my post here.

Places and Stories That Matter: Digital Experiments and Community Involvement
Minda Borun, Director of Research and Evaluation, Franklin Institute
Joan Saverino, Assistant Director for Education, Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Matthew Fisher, President, Night Kitchen
Marci Reaven, Managing Director, City Lore

Almost-Live Blogging: Museum Technology and Trends

Museum Technology and Trends on the Horizon

For those of you not already familiar with the Horizon Museum Report, part of the New Media Consortium's Horizon Project and co-edited by Leonard Steinbach and Susan Chun, go check it out now!

In a nutshell, the Report looks at six technologies that are likely to be adopted by museums in the near future (1 year or less), mid-range future (2-3 years) or longer-term future (4-5 years) as well as six trends to be aware of and six challenges to adopting these new technologies or participating in these trends. Each of the six lists was compiled by vote.

Technologies on the Horizon:
Current-1 year
Collection Systems: Yes, automated collections management systems have been in place for a long time, but they continue to grow and develop in capabilities and sophistication. Continue to watch for more to come from them! Also, as Susan Chun mentioned, they are the hardest to implement and often the most expensive.

Mobile Devices: Check out the Boston MFA's mobile scavenger hunt: The Quest!

2-3 years
Gelocation: Google Earth + Collections = Mapping Initiatives

Alternative Interaction Devices: DigiWall in Sweden; new interactives on the floor at the California Academy of Sciences

4-5 years
Open Content: This is mostly projected as being so far out because it is often a major policy issue--museums are still very afraid of the loss of control that comes with opening up content--not to mention the intellectual property issues involved.

Multi-Language Capabilities: Though Robert Lancefield pointed out that thanks to Unicode that capability is really already here. And Susan mentioned that this can also be achieved through crowd-sourcing.

Technologies that did not make the list, mostly because they are just considered a "given" at this point:
-- User-generated content
-- Tagging
-- Mashups
-- Syndicated content
-- Digitally-native collection objects
-- Webware
-- Cloud computing (too far-out there for museums still) Robert thought it was a mistake to leave this one off the list. He argued that due to the scalability of cloud computing, even small museums can take advantage of aggregated capacity. Cited IMA and the Jewish Women's Archive as places successfully engaged in cloud computing.

Trends to Watch:
-- Tech-savvy audiences will demand more and richer online content from museums.
-- Open content is inevitable.
-- Increased and improved collections digitization.
-- Technology plans integrated into overall museum strategic plans (the Getty recently changed their mission to include Internet initiatives).
-- Addressing to what extent online engagement complements or enhances physical presence.
-- Increase in use of participatory tools.

Critical Challenges: (Most of these related to infrastructure and policy.)
-- Adequate staffing/adequately trained staff
-- Budgeting for technology
-- Dedicating staff and funding to technology
-- Balancing core mission technology leading edge technologies/experimentation
-- Overcoming fears, esp. regarding open content
-- Copyright, intellectual property laws and other legal obstacles to open content.

And Nik Honeysett added one more challenge, that he states is the biggest one: dissemination. Almost everyone in the room had a fairly advanced knowledge of the subject matter being discussed--everyone already had more than a cursory understanding of web 2.0 technologies. In fact, several of us were trying to live-blog (except that there was no free wifi) and one person was twittering. So essentially, Nik said he was "preaching to the choir." And he was. He urged those of us in the audience to go out and share information about the importance of these technologies with others, but left us with this question: "If we could reach them [all those who aren't already on board with new technologies] all, what would the message be and would anyone listen?"

Eventually, everyone will have to listen or else be left behind by their constituents. And so, in the meantime, I say to all of "them," go check out the Horizon Report!

For a more specific look at one aspect of this report, see my blog over at WestMuse!

Museum Technologies and Trends on the Horizon: A Critical Review

-- Leonard Stenibach, Principal, Cultural Technology Strategies
-- Susan Chun, Founder and Project Lead, Steve.Museum
-- Rob Lancefield, Manager of Museum Information Services/Registrar of Collections, Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University; President, MCN
-- Nik Honeysett, Head of Administration, J. Paul Getty Museum; Chair, SPC Council of AAM; Chair, Media and Technology SPC, AAM

Almost-Live Blogging at AAM

Well, here I am at AAM. My intent was to live-blog the sessions I attend, but sadly, there is no free wifi in the session rooms! So I will be posting somewhat after the sessions... I am also tweeting about the conference. You can follow me: @museum_flavor and you can follow everyone tweeting about the conference by following #aam09. I will also be posting less personal thoughts on the sessions (and possibly more in depth) over at WestMuse, the new WMA blog. There is also the official AAM conference blog. So for all those who can't actually be here in beautiful Philly, there are lots of ways to play along at home!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sending Good Thoughts to the Field

Oh man, I have been here. A leak in the collections--particularly if there are organic collections that can really suffer and get moldy or destroyed by the water--is never any fun. Good luck, guys.

Visitorship vs Revenue

...And on the other hand, this article reminds me that an increase in visitorship does not necessarily translate into an increase in dollars. So what's a museum to do? Welcome staycationers with open arms, knowing that it won't result in more money now but hoping that it will lead to future memberships and donations? C'mon marketers, development and membership officers--on your toes? How are we going to take this boon of visitors and turn it into ongoing support for our museums?

Increase Admissions by Decreasing Admission?

I'm going to take this as an one more point in favor of my argument that museums (and zoos) should *not* be raising admission prices right now--that they should be keeping them affordable (and preferably on par with or even less than the cost of a movie). The Como Zoo is seeing increased attendance because people can't afford to go away on vacation, so they are taking "staycations." Also, because the Zoo accepts donations rather than charging an admission fee, people who are unemployed can afford to visit and take a break from their troubles.

Paying Attention to Collections Care

For years now I have been saying that what reality TV needs is a show about conservation emergencies. Like Conservation 911 or something like that. No one else has ever been all that enthusiastic about my idea--not even conservators and fellow collections staff. That's okay, though, because I feel like conservation and collections care are getting their due at least a little bit though thanks to this article in the NY Times about the conservation needs and struggles throughout the museum world. Thanks, New York Times!

Google and Museums

Pete over at New Curator posts a really good question: why isn't there a Just think what could happen if Google applied their mad organizational skills to collections content management or their mapping capabilities to museum floorplans? you could chart your course throughout a museum and highlight all the objects you want to see along the way all thanks to Google! Neat ideas.

Give Proper Props to the Newark Museum!

What a back-handed compliment: to be called a "best kept secret." That's almost like accusing something of a crappy marketing plan. Really--it's saying that this best kept secret is something really totally awesome, and yet no one knows about it. Now, some great things no one wants to share because they want to keep whatever the great thing is to themselves--like the location of a gold mine. But people usually want to share great experiences that they have a museums. Don't they?

So despite the fact that the Newark Museum is a ground-breaking leader in the museum field and is celebrating its 100th birthday (wow!), I feel a little sorry for it that in the opening sentence of this article, it is referred to as a "best kept secret." All the other compliments and praise the author heaps on the museum feel a little empty after that ambiguous phrase.

Sorry, Newark. But don't worry, the museum profession knows how awesome you are!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Great Charles Schwab Quote!

"Museums are a crucial part of a healthy and vibrant community...They connect us to the past while illuminating the future and are centers of creativity and incubators of innovation—among the most valuable commodities we have as a nation."

-- Charles Schwab, chairman of the Board of Trustees of SFMOMA as quoted in Art Daily regarding the planned SFMOMA expansion.
Can I get an Amen?

Summary of the Economic Impact on Museums

Briefly, another good synopsis of the current effects of the economic downturn on US museums from the Winnipeg Sun. It chronicles the Getty, Met, Art Institute, DIA, Las Vegas Art Museum, National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, and so on and so forth.

The article also talks about despite the financial crisis, how visitorship is up for many museums and programming is still going strong.

Thoughts on Communication

Several interesting blog posts and news articles have me thinking about the changing nature of communication and how we view it. First off, from the Chronicle of Philanthropy we learn that a) the average age of a Facebook user is rapidly rising, and as it does so, its value for fundraisers will increase because b) social networking sites are increasingly being used for personal communications over regular ol' e-mail.

Next we have an article and a blog post that quite succinctly answer the question: Is anybody really listening out there? The answer is a resounding, "Yes."

From Donor Power Blog we see exactly how word of mouth (and he uses a great term from the Church of the Customer, Wominomics) can help or hinder us.

And from ABC Entertainment News--that's right, folks, Entertainment News, we see how Demi Moore's twitter feed may have saved a woman's life. This is not the first time that Twitter has been used in a real-time effort to spread information to appropriate parties, but it certainly is a great example of just how mainstream it has become as a platform for quick and effective communication.

Lessons learned? Use Facebook. Use Twitter. Be good to your constituents and listen to what they are saying about you. And be assured, people are listening to you.

Disappointed with Disney

Sigh. I love Disneyland. For me, it truly is at least one of the happiest places on Earth. And I love museums. And like John Frost at The Disney Blog, I really, really wanted to like the new Walt Disney Family Museum, but without having even visited (it doesn't open until October), I already have my doubts.

These doubts stem largely from the motivations behind the museum--Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, wanted to found the museum as a response to unflattering biographies about her father. What's more, rather than founding the museum near where he lived and worked and founded his empire in Southern California, instead she chose the controversial site of the former military base cum National Park (and home to LucasFilms' Letterman Digital Arts Center) the Presidio in San Francisco--apparently because it is close to where she lives.

Add to this the fact that the Walt Disney Company owns Walt Disney's name and image and that Mrs. Miller has had to buy or borrow most of the artwork in the museum and I begin to wonder why this museum really needs to exist, now that the Disney archives have become much more open about lending out materials to museums. What truly makes this museum special? What story does it tell that the "A Walk in Walt's Footsteps" tour at Disneyland doesn't tell? I think instead of planning a trip to this museum, I'll just save up my pennies for another visit to the Magic Kingdom.

New York's "Birth Certificate"

Growing up in New York City, of course I learned about how my home town had originally been purchased for 24 bucks worth of beads. But it never before occurred to me that there might exist an actual bill of sale, or at least a written accounting of this transaction. But apparently there is! And it's currently on display along with other historical documents and paintings of the birth of New York (then New Amsterdam), at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam!

But fear not, New Yorkers, when the exhibit at the Rijksmuseum closes, it will travel to the South Street Seaport where you should go check it out!

Western Museums Association

WMA has burst into life in the cyber world! With a linkedin group, Facebook group, Facebook fan page and now a blog!

Yes, I am one of the authors of the blog. I also happen to be on the Board.

Also, it's time for pre-early-bird registration for the annual conference, this year to be held in sunny San Diego. This year promises to be a recession-friendly conference. The Program Committee has taken great pains to re-envision the conference in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of attendance. Plus, if you register now during the pre-early-bird time period, you receive an extra discount!

So sign up today for the WMA conference and take advantage of the Resource Clinics on grant writing, resume review or for new directors; visit the Tech Lab; and attend sessions on free, shared technology for your museum or a workshop on Design 101 at the Maritime Museum and USS Midway!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wanna Talk Transparency?

So much is said over and over about how non-profits need to be enterprising, unafraid to fail, embracing of their communities and transparent. And every time I see a new blog post from the Brooklyn Museum, I think, "Well, these guys are really *doing* it!" right now they are blogging in detail about the lessons learned from their experience with Wikipedia Loves Art, which was not an unmitigated success. But their honesty--their transparency--in discussing what worked and what didn't and how it could have been improved can be seen as a valuable resource to us all.

I'd love to hear about more museums that are taking that risk--trying out new programs and strategies and then reporting back on their efforts to the whole world. So tell me, what is your museum up to these days?

Quick Follow-up to Yesterday's Post

Yesterday I blogged about whether or not e-philanthropy worked. The answer was a conditional yes, but that it is getting off the ground slowly. Jason Dick at A Small Change confirms this with his post Online Fundraising is Hard. But he agrees that it really is just a matter of time. Just a little patience, that's all we need. Oh, and some tenacity mixed in there, too.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Does E-Philanthropy Work?

The big question that everyone has been asking of e-philanthropy is does it work? Finally, there are some real results coming out and the answer seems to be a very qualified yes. Online giving through social media is consistently criticized for resulting in dollar amounts that are "too low per donor" and that "donations tend to be transactional, not relationship-based or one-time donors."

However, this does not mean that this approach to fundraising should be avoided or ignored. It just means that it will start off slowly in terms of results. But experts all seem to agree that online giving and engagement is growing and that non-profits should start exercising this form of fundraising sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than so that they will be prepared when philanthropy 2.0 suddenly does go big. Build the relationships today, raise the money tomorrow.

Lessons to Learn from the For-Profit World

Despite the fact that portions of the for-profit sector have created our current economic debacle, there is a lot that non-profits can learn from the for-profit world, particularly to help them out right now.

For example, strong fundraising is more important right now than ever. In order to help with the effectiveness of our fundraising efforts, we might want to learn from Microsoft's great video on the Advertiser vs. the Consumer. Network for Good has made it even easier for non-profits, remaking that classic video for the non-profit world.

Tony Hsieh took a small start-up,, and built it into a $1 billion business. In a recent talk he gave, he credits his accomplishment on creating an organizational culture that "encourages transparency, happiness, and passion for customer service."

-- "Zappos is committed to WOWing every customer."
-- Word of mouth helps to build repeat customers.
-- "Twitter helps build company culture."
-- "People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel."
-- Commit to transparency (Twitter is a part of this, as is Zappos Insights where they share information on how they run the company)
-- "Hire slowly, fire quickly. Invest in training and developing your employees."
-- Think long term (sustainability)

Entitlement, Bail Outs and Getting Real

Harsh words from Todd Cohen over at Inside Philanthropy:
Fueled by their sense of entitlement, nonprofits and foundations find plenty to complain about rather than taking the tough steps required to advance their mission...The economic crisis has handed nonprofits and foundations a rare opportunity, maybe a final chance, to stop their sobbing, get rid of their entitlement mindset and build market-driven business models.

To cope in the real world, nonprofits and foundations need to get real.

Instead of looking to foundations and government to bail them out, nonprofits need to get their own houses in order.

And instead of squealing like stuck pigs over the loss in the value of their endowments, foundations need to dig deeper and invest what is needed to help nonprofit equip themselves to take on the social and global problems they exist to address.
What do you think--do you agree?

What Does it Mean When the Plants Start Twittering?

# Thank you for watering me!2:42 PM Mar 30th from web

# URGENT! Water me!2:06 AM Mar 27th from web

# Water me please.12:40 PM Mar 25th from web

These are actual tweets from Pothos. Pothos is a plant. That's right, a plant. As of this posting, Pothos has 3,139 followers on the increasingly-popular social media site, Twitter.

How does Pothos tweet? According to the Huffington Post,
Botanicalls, a device that sends wireless signals to Twitter. It's made of soil moisture sensors that transmit information (too much moisture? too little?) through a circuit board to a microcontroller, just like a mini-computer.
Granted, this is kind of neat, but why am I posting about this here? Well, quite simply, because I am of two minds about this.

First, if using Twitter is so simple a *plant* can use it (think of those old Castro Convertibles commercials for the sofa beds so easy a child can do it), then clearly non-profits can get with the program and start tweeting.

But on the other hand, as Neatorama puts it, "Twitter is all the rage these days, sure, but plants Twittering? Has this fad gone too far?" Should non-profits being trying to make serious use of Twitter as a social networking tool if it is being trivialized to the point of being used by plants?

Or is this just indicative of a growing concern in the business world--the mixing of the professional with the personal? Are the lines between the two blurring--and should they be? Are thee benefits to the new fuzziness that is ensuing from professional networks in online spaces designed for socializing, such as Facebook and Twitter?

Jason Dick blogging over at A Small Change raises this valid point:
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told not to mix personal with professional. But that is exactly what we ask our volunteers and board members to do all of the time. How many of your top supporters ask their co-workers and business associates to partner with you?

Where do you feel the line should be? How do you maintain it in your own life and online personae and interactions? Does Pothos invalidate the use of Twitter for serious purposes?

Public Radio in Baltimore Helping out Non-Profits

Once again, I love seeing this sort of thing--non-profits helping out non-profits. WYPR in Baltimore will be giving free air time to local arts groups for the next six months, including the Walters Art Museum and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History.
"It's all about the economy," said WYPR President and General Manager Anthony Brandon. "It's a time when arts and cultural institutions are under constant economic pressure. It's important for us, as a community, to understand and support that which keeps our city alive."
I couldn't agree more!

Bergamot is Saved!

According to the Save Bergamot Station Facebook group, the County Supervisor for the District stated
that he does not, and will not, allow the use of Bergamot as a site. Period.

If the County Supervisor for our District is protective, and the Expo
Authority's chief operating officer says (in yesterday's LA Times) that
Bergamot Station was "never studied. It's a non-starter", then...

That's it. It's over. Bergamot's safe.
Well, good.

Top five Most-Visited Museums Worldwide

Louvre, Paris: 8.5 million visitors
British Museum, London: 5.9 million visitors
National Gallery of Art, DC: 4.96 million visitors
Tate Modern, London: 4.95 million visitors
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: 4.82 million visitors

Source: NY Times

Two-Faced Nefertiti

Just a quick note to file under, "Cool!" CT scans of the bust of Nefertiti (currently housed in the Altes Museum in Germany, until the Neues Museum re-opens this fall) have shown that she has a different face carved of stone underneath her stucco exterior. No one knows why the changes were made and most likely never will. But the knowledge of what lies beneath will help to better care for the fragile bust.

Way to Go, Ford!

Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, sent a letter to the editor at the NY Times published yesterday. In his short but strong letter, he explains that
Allowing a museum to peddle its collection to cover operating debts would be like allowing a financial fiduciary, such as a bank, to raid assets held in trust to cover a hole in its own balance sheet.

It would be inconceivable for a financial trustee to subvert a trust to serve its own interests. It should be equally inconceivable for a museum to raid the collections placed in trust with it.
Way to go, Ford--thanks for defending our Code of Ethics!

Franklin Institute

The Franklin Institute has been one of my favorite museums ever since I was a little kid when my parents used to drive all the way from NYC to go visit (it's one of my dad's favorite places, too).

Living on the West Coast now, it's not as easy to just hop in my car for a visit, but last fall I had the pleasure of once again exploring the Franklin while in Philly for the ASTC conference. While I was there, I fell in love with the Franklin all over again. My dad was thrilled when I told him that I'd ridden the old train in the basement.

In just a few weeks, I'll head back to Philly again, first for AAM and then a week or so later for the installation of Star Trek: The Exhibition, which will be hosted by the Franklin. The Franklin has a history of taking on cool, blockbuster exhibits; it has presented King Tut, Real Pirates (saw that there last fall and it was awesome!) and opening this week they have Galileo.

I'm a huge fan of astronomy--I've been gazing at and wondering about the stars and space again since I was a little kid--and I have to say, from the articles I've read and from Derrick Pitts appearance on the Colbert Report, I think it's going to be a fun show.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Movie Attendance is Up, Why Are Arts Orgs Failing?

It began with a simple tweet,* "@Afine one in ten arts orgs are on the brink of collapse but movie attendance up - is this a marketing problem?"

The result was three blog posts (here, here and here), numerous comments and a great in-depth, online discussion regarding the business models of arts organizations.

But many people involved in the discussion all came to a very similar conclusion: arts organizations are on the brink of failure because they do not listen to their communities.

Brian Reich, one of the commenters on Allison Fine's blog opines of arts organizations:
...they don’t ask the audience what they want, or try to understand how to fit their work into the busy lives of the people who they seek attention from. They measure success by the amount of money raised or open rates on their email and not the inspiration they offer, people they feed, or happiness they bring. That simply won’t work.

Non-profit social media guru Beth Kanter in her blog responded by suggesting that perhaps what arts organizations needs are social capital impact studies to accompany economic impact studies. Her commenters then posted links to three models for such studies: the MLA London Knowledge Transfer Programme, the Center for Creative Community Development (with a case study from Mass MOCA) and the U-Penn Social Impact of the Arts Study.

What I particularly like about the C3D model is that they offer organizations tools for "evaluating and articulating impact." I wonder if this is a little like an AAM self-study.

But what I find really troublesome about this whole discussion is that sentiment expressed by Brian Reich and shared by so many that arts organizations (this includes museums) are failing their communities by refusing to acknowledge them. The Excellence and Equity report was produced by AAM in 1992. That's more than 10 years ago! I know that change happens slowly, but I would have liked to think that museums at least would have stepped up to the plate more by now in terms of not community inclusion and participation. It should be standard by now in museums: find out what matters to your community and address that!

Which brings me back to a topic that I just can't seem to shake these days: if it is certain that roughly 10% of arts organizations will fail, if it is certain that a portion of those failed organizations will be museums, should we as museum professionals take action to ensure that those museums that are addressing the needs of their communities be spared? Will the museums that aren't meeting the needs of their communities simply be culled through a process almost like natural selection? Should AAM aid in the culling by changing the standards and criteria for accreditation to better reflect the future needs of communities rather than the perhaps out-dated assumptions we have about what museums are and do?

These are some hard questions in many senses, but I think they really do require examination.

*For those not up on their social media lingo, a "tweet" is what you say on Twitter.

Non-Profits and the Economic Stimulus Plan

Michael Seltzer has a very useful post over at the PhilanTopic blog that serves as a basic FAQ for nonprofits hoping to benefit from the Economic Stimulus Act. Questions he addresses include: "How do I find out which types of programs are eligible to receive funding?" and "Where can I turn for assistance and counsel?"

Looking at Open Content

One of the biggest fears museums face when looking into social media is that of losing control by opening up their content. Over at Smithsonian 2.0, Michael Edson posted about a couple of events that he feels may help the Smithsonian to embrace the idea of open content: 1. The faculty at MIT just voted to "mandate open access distribution of their scholarly articles." 2. U.S. Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) guest blogged on the O'Reilly Radar Blog, stating, "Instead of viewing the public as a customer for services, I believe that we should empower citizens to become our partners in shaping the future of our nation."

How about in your museums? What are the fears of social media? How is the question of open content being addressed?

Save Bergamot Station!

Holy crap, how did this escape my notice until now--a day too late!! Bergamot Station, a unique area in Santa Monica filled with art galleries and home to the Santa Monica Museum of Art (not to mention a sweet little cafe where I sometimes like to get a breakfast burrito or a sandwich) is seriously being considered for use as a light rail maintenance facility? What?? Someone please tell me this is an April Fool's Day joke!

Now, I recognize that Bergamot Station began life as a trolley yard, so it makes a certain amount of sense, but as a home to the galleries, it has become an important part of the LA cultural landscape and I can't advocate removing that. If they have a plan for relocating the galleries of Bergamot Station, that might be okay, but simply disbanding it should not be an option.

On the plus side, at least we will finally be getting the ocean-to-Exposition Park light rail line that they have been talking about since before I even moved here (and when I did first move to SM I was working in Exposition Park...)

Reality Check

In the past couple of years, transparency has been a much bandied about term in the philanthropic sector. What it means, why it's important, how it can be implemented have all been discussed at length by theorists and practitioners alike. But now, Guidestar has come out with a publication stating just exactly how NOT transparent nonprofits still are.

The thing about transparency, especially right now in our present economic climate, is that it helps inspire confidence and trust in an organization. Donors want to know where there money goes once it leaves their checkbooks. Donors also want to know that they aren't giving money to a sinking ship. Refusing to be transparent can and may be taken as a sign that there is something to hide, that if a people knew what was really going on with an organization, they would never support it financially. Well, guess what folks, are they really supporting you financially now? So what have you got to lose by opening up and trying to build relationships based on trust?

Hat tip to Katya's Non-Profit Marketing Blog for the heads-up re: the new study.


A little over a year ago, the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum opened on the LA County Museum of Art campus, transforming it completely. I remember at the time, that a giant crane dangling a locomotive that would actually spout steam on the hour had been planned as an in situ art piece by Jeff Koons, but there had been some delay so that piece wasn't ready for the grand opening. Frankly, I just thought it sounded sort of dangerous, but if the engineers could find a way to ensure that the train stayed suspended in the air rather than falling onto the heads of unsuspecting art lovers, well then, I guess that would be fine; as an art concept I was sort of indifferent to it.

But I just learned from Art for a Change that indeed it was engineering that caused the hold-up, for which I'm grateful. If this puppy is really going to happen, I want it to be safe! What I also learned from Art for a Change is that the price tag on this piece of art is $25 million. Wow. It would be the most expensive single piece ever commissioned by a museum. Again, wow. And especially right now. A third time, wow.

Vallen's blog post is fairly vitriolic, but his point is still taken: that's a whole lotta dough to be shelling out for one piece right now as other museums close their doors or lay off their staff. Maybe Train, as the piece is entitled, is actually the Little Engine That Shouldn't.

A Sobering Look at the Real Numbers

Mark Vallen over at Art for a Change wrote a very eloquent yet sobering post earlier this month putting the economic crisis and the President's spending plan in perspective: $50 million for national arts spending in the stimulus package and "$11 billion a month for the next year and a half despite the planned draw down of U.S. forces in Iraq."

Vallen also begins a list of museums that are laying off staff or closing their doors, similar to the list I began, but his is more detailed and mentions a couple I have not, such as the Walters Art Museum which "laid-off seven of its 150 employees, imposed a salary and hiring freeze, and cancelled [sic] a major exhibition of works by French painter Jean-Leon Gerome - an exhibit that would have been a collaborative project with the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Getty in Los Angeles."

When you look at the budget cuts for just the 8 institutions Vallen mentions, it becomes painfully obvious that $50 million just won't go very far. Closures will be inevitable. Guess Elizabeth Merritt of the Center for the Future of Museums is right; since it isn't a question of if but when, how many and who, maybe we need to start figuring out how to orchestrate this strategically so that the overall value of arts organizations as a whole is not diminished for the public.

Another Non-Print Periodical

Yesterday I posted briefly about The Thing Quarterly, a quarterly art object-based periodical. Well, it appears that there is a similar sort of experiment going on in the UK. Tim Siedell over at Bad Banana Blog posted about Matter. According to Tim,
The people behind Matter view the service as a type of magazine, delivering interesting content (not crap) to interested households.

According to Matter's own marketing,
Matter is a box full of FREE things you might like… to keep

Matter is a new way for companies to talk to you by giving you real, physical things you might like to keep, use or give to your friends.

Matter is a box full of nice things delivered to you on a Saturday morning. Inside the box is a selection of items from different companies–which might be useful, entertaining or just fun.

Obviously this is not for someone like myself who is an incurable pack-rat and whose home is already stuffed to the gills, but for anyone else (sane) this frankly looks cool. Sadly, it is currently only available in the UK.

What other sorts of non-printed-page "periodicals" or "magazines" are out there? And let me take this one step further (since I think the Brooklyn Museum already is with their 1st fans Twitter Art Feed), how can museums use these unbound (ha!) ideas to revitalize their own approaches to their publications and communications with their communities?

Friday, March 27, 2009

What *Can't* Disney Teach?^

Heh. Looks like the museum field isn't the only one out there trying to learn lessons from Disney. Game-design lessons from Disneyland.

^Tongue-in-cheek, folks.

The Thing Meets 1st Fans Twitter Art Feed

Just a quick note because I think it's neat when different parts of my life sort of intersect. I just received in the mail issue 4 of The Thing Quarterly, a self-proclaimed object-based periodical. Every few months, another piece of art in the form of an everyday object that somehow incorporates text arrives at my doorstep.

Back in the museum world, the Brooklyn Museum just announced that they will be collaborating with Brooklyn-based writer Jonathan Lethem, having him on the museum-based Twitter Art Feed.

Basically, the idea behind the 1st fans Twitter Art Feed is to use popular micro-blogging social networking site Twitter as a conceptual art space. Each month, the museum invites another artist to participate, sort of like a virtual artist in residence.

Assumptions about Museums

Over at the Center for the Future of Museums blog, long-held assumptions about what museums are and do are being raised and questioned including:

-- Everything currently in the collections will stay in the collections
-- Everything that fits the collections plan will go into the collections
-- Growth is good, necessary and inevitable
-- Museums as organizations tied to a particular place
-- Museums will always be tax-exempt non-profit organizations

It's a pretty thorough post in terms of laying out what the assumptions are that we need to rethink, but what it doesn't offer is any discussion of what questioning those assumptions will mean in real life to museums and those who work in them.

For example, what will happen to our current collections skills and practices if museums move away from having permanent collections in the traditional sense? What will happen to museum funding if museums move away from the idea of incessant growth? Funders tend to want to pay for increases, be it in participation in programming or number of programming, funders verify the success of what they pay for by numbers that go up. And what will happen to all the museums that are currently accredited if the criteria for accreditation suddenly and radically changes as the entire concept of what a museum is alters?

I'm certainly not against scenario exercises or questioning assumptions, but I'd love to hear some more in-depth thoughts on how the scenario for museums will change as we question these assumptions.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fighting to Save the End of the Trail

The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, along with the Stevens-Crawford Heritage House and the Museum of the Oregon Territory closed on March 9 when their parent organization, Clackamas Heritage Partners, suspended operations due to financial troubles.

Disclosure time, here. I am a fan of the Clackamas Heritage Partners and a friend of their Executive Director, David Porter.

I know a lot of museums and cultural sites are having trouble right now, but with this one there is something immediate that you can do to help: join the Facebook cause.

Lucy Not in the Sky, Not with Diamonds

The New York Times recently reported on the less than stellar response Seattle had to its visit from our oldest ancestress, the hominid remains dubbed Lucy. The article suggested any number of reasons why what should have been a blockbuster show with lines around the block instead had half the expected visitorship: poor marketing, the Christmas-time blizzard that left Seattlites all-but homebound for nearly a week, the bum economy and even the negative image that Americans have of Ethiopia. These are all very valid excuses and I hate to be a wet-blanket, but the real reason why this show did not--and in my mind will not--succeed is that other than Lucy herself, the show just wasn't what I had expected.

I was jumping out of my skin to go see Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, so much so that I flew to Houston to see the exhibit where it first opened at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I kinda wish I'd seen the da Vinci exhibit that had been showing there instead.

Importance and Controversy: Why I Wanted to See the Exhibit
A little backstory on Lucy and the exhibit. Lucy is the oldest set of fossilized hominid remains ever found, making her essentially our oldest know ancestor at roughly 3.2 million years old. She is a truly one-of-a-kind. That's pretty darn exciting. She was unearthed in 1974 in Ethiopia and the people of Ethiopia take great pride in her, referring to her as "Dinkenesh," meaning "you are beautiful," suggesting someone precious and magnificent.

Since her discovery, scientists have been trying to learn all that they can from her, and despite the fact that they have been at this for more than three decades, they still have a long ways to go. Needless to say, they weren't too pleased about Lucy being taken away from them to go on tour for who-knows how many years.

The people of Ethiopia weren't all that pleased about Lucy leaving them, either. She is part of their cultural patrimony and as I said, a source of national pride. Some Ethiopians felt that she was sort of snuck out of the country without their consent for this tour, despite the fact that it was arranged in part by the Ethiopian government.

Museum professionals and paleoanthropologists were also upset by the proposed Lucy tour because the remains are so fragile, damage of some kind is almost inevitable. As a museum collections professional involved with traveling exhibits, I'd have to concur with that assessment. And once Lucy is damaged, well, like I said, she is one-of-a-kind. Prominent museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declined the show and others came out in vocal opposition to the very premise of the exhibit.

To top it all off, transporting Lucy out of Ethiopia violates a 1998 UNESCO resolution signed by top scientists that states that fossils should not be removed from their country of origin unless there is some overwhelming scientific reason to do so.

All of this controversy only made the exhibit more delicious to me--I had to go see this show! So maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe they were just misplaced.

The Reality of the Exhibit
Lucy herself in her hermetically-sealed transparent coffin was breath-taking. I still believe firmly in the power of the authentic and she is the real deal. But you wander through a lot of real estate before encountering Lucy and that floor-space is most consumed with selling Ethiopia. Huh? I thought I was going to an exhibit on physical or paleo-anthropology, not a travelogue about the nation where some important remains were found. Apparently, I was wrong. There was nearly nothing on human evolution and physical anthropology.

So, in short, I think that the developers of this exhibit quite simply got their audience completely wrong. People who are excited to go see Lucy the remains don't want to learn about Haile Selassie, they want to understand why three decades is not enough time to learn everything Lucy has to share with us and to better understand how she fits in with and informs our understanding of who we all are and how we got to be here at this evolutionary point in time. We want anthropology, not a travel brochure.

Sources for the Backstory on the Controversy:
OC Register
Washington Post
National Geographic
Rice University
International Herald Tribune

Libraries in AZ Helping Museum Attendance

I think this is just awesome. Six library systems in the metropolitan Phoenix area will be offering museum passes that patrons can check out for free just like they can check out books!

Apparently the system that will provide library patrons with free admission to 15 museums and cultural attractions in the Phoenix area is based on a set-up already seeing success in Minneapolis, the Museum Adventure Pass, which was used by 500,000 in its first year. Detroit seems to have one, too.

Both the Minneapolis and the Detroit ones are sponsored by Macy's. Wonder if the one in AZ will be, too.

One Museum That Really Stands to Benefit from the Financial Crisis

While most other museums around the country are viewing our current economy as a disaster, one museum in New York sees it as an opportunity for a new exhibit. The Museum of American Finance opened an exhibit yesterday called "Tracking the Credit Crisis," examining the events that led up to the recession. Although Leena Akhtar, co-curator for the exhibit, readily admits that, "You cannot really document history until well after the fact," the exhibit hopes to explain the current financial situation in terms that anyone can understand.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Transparency to a Fault can be a Good Thing

I personally can't handle shopping at Trader Joe's, precisely for one of the complaints mentioned in this catchy little ditty: the parking situation is always abominable.

But as Jeff at Donor Power Blog points out, complaints such as parking coupled with the homemade quality of this cellphone video is exactly what is so great about this unauthorized ad: "It's not marketing," he says, "It's relationship."
Relationships are multi-dimensional. They include positives and negatives. In a good relationship, the positives outweigh the negatives.

The only places where no negatives exist are the fake worlds of advertising, marketing, and branding.

And nobody believes them any more.

Does this make those who are afraid of giving too much power and control of our messages to others through social media feel less frightened?

Thoughts Inspired by Phialnthropy 2173

The always thought-provoking Lucy Bernholz over at Philanthropy 2173 posted recently on a series of random topics of interest.

Too Many Nonprofits
Lucy poses the question of whether "this economic moment be one in which the age-old trope about "too many nonprofits" passes on, as more and more npos merge or go under?" Good question. Elizabeth Merritt, head of the Center for the Future of Museums recently mused in a blog post whether 20% of museums should be "allowed—even encouraged—to fail?" She goes on to mention that similarly the historic preservation field is already initiating
a serious conversation throughout the historic site community of professionals and volunteers about the choices we must make to ensure that our sites provide maximum value to our society and thus remain relevant and useful for future generations.
Really this topic is one that deserves its own discussion, but the key point made by both Elizabeth and the Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century is that museums and historic sites need to be proactive about the situation--before the decisions are taken out of our hands, we must address hard questions such as
• How do we ensure that valuable cultural, scientific and artistic heritage in the collections are protected and remain in the public domain?
• What or who determines which museums close? ... simple natural selection doesn’t always work...

So would this be like a controlled burn in order to avoid the devastation of a wild fire and keep the forests safe?

Volunteers and Nonprofits
Lucy in her post also briefly mentions new approaches to bringing in volunteers for organizations--particularly since in this economy volunteers may be highly transient, the question then becomes are there ways in which an organization can make short-term use, possibly even online, of new volunteers? She mentions the Jayne Blog where the idea of "crowd-sourcing" volunteer projects is discussed. I think that this could be very useful for museums in terms of lessening the time-cost of social media projects, for example by having other people upload photos of museum events and so on, but obviously this kind of volunteering can never help with the real hands-on needs of museums, such as giving tours or helping with collections. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe in the future it will be just as useful for volunteers to make podcast tours or "tag" collections.

This takes me to the third topic raised by Lucy's post:
"Minimum Viable Product"
Lucy describes "minimum viable product" as the products that go to market with only the most basic features, but with the intention of engaging in an iterative process of further developing these products through listening to the needs and desires of the consumers and watching how consumers use these products. What does crowdsourcing volunteer projects have to do with minimum viable product? Well, because in an ideal world, a museum's forays into social media would count as a minimum viable product, with volunteers and members and hey, even just the general public coming together to crowdsource the content and helping to turn the museum's blog, Flickr presence and so on into a rich dialogue. At the heart of it all, this is really just about expanding the lines of communication.

Las Vegas Loses One Arts Org, Gains Another

Well, not too long ago I mentioned that Las Vegas seemed committed to its growing museum population, and while the Las Vegas Art Museum is now closed, Las Vegas is now going to break ground on the new $475 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Apparently this new multi-purpose center will be specifically geared towards locals rather than tourists in hopes of creating a richer cultural scene for those who actually live in the Vegas area, as opposed to the art endeavors at the casinos that have been aimed at tourists.

Win-Win for Supermarkets and the Mystic Aquarium

This is awesome; I am so excited about win-win situations like this! Thanks to a new partnership between ShopRite and the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration, the Aquarium will save $16,000 per year in food for the animals and the grocery corporation will reduce its waste. The program will consist of ShopRite donating produce that is bruised or otherwise visually unappealing to consumers, but that is still edible and nutritious.

Of course, this sort of use of previously believed "unusable" foods is not new. Food Not Bombs has made "food recovery" a key part of its logistics for nearly thirty years.

Getting to the (Abnormal) Heart of Love

Maybe it's the helpless romantic in me, maybe it's the museum geek in me, or maybe it's just an unholy combination of the two, but I love reading about love events in museums--particularly when the museum has an unexpected focus. For example, a few years ago I remember reading about how a Japanese parasite museum was apparently all the rage for dating couples. Well now the Mutter Museum in Philly will be hosting a single event courtesy of Meet Market Adventures. I had the pleasure of visiting the Mutter this past fall and let me tell you, it will indeed be an adventure! The medical museum (whose website aptly boasts that it is "disturbingly informative) holds collections that consist of medical anomalies, some of which are definitely not for the squeamish.

How Informercials Can Help Us All

Whether you hate them or watch them obsessively in the wee hours of the night, infomercials are pretty recognizable in terms of their formulaic presentation, and this guy argues that their formula is one that can bring success to any organization! Watch the video and see what you think.

According to Rohit Bhargava, the key components to an informercial are:

1. Have a backstory.
2. Show the product in action.
3. Use real testimonials.
4. Make a specific offer.
5. Give a reason to act NOW.

Frankly, this formula does look pretty much spot-on to me in terms of building a case for a fundraising campaign. Thoughts?

Hat tip to Donor Power Blog for this one.

Big Gift for the Field

Congratulations to the Field Museum on its new $7.3 million gift to establish the Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies! And props to the Tawani Foundation and James Pritzker for the endowment and the donation of $3 million worth of meteorites. That makes the Field's collection the largest non-government meteorite collection in the world! According to this article, although the Field has not really been known for its meteorite collection in the past, the first issue of the Museum's periodical, Fieldiana, back in 1895 was on meteorites. It's nice to see that even in these desperate times, there are still big donors out there--especially ones with a sense of history!

Barnum Museum and a Festival

Here's an example (and there are many) of museum news that interests me intersecting with other elements of my life.

A few years back, the women in my family (there are quite a few of us) had an online book club. One of the books we read was Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. No spoilers here, but I will say that the book was pretty sad but I loved the ending. The basic plot of the book follows a young man's journeys as a vet for a traveling circus during the Depression and the book earned a soft spot in my heart because it reminded me of not one but both of my grandfathers.

The second piece of this story is that it came to my attention a couple years ago that the city of Bridgeport, CT was trying to figure out how best to make use of its Barnum heritage in terms of the Barnum Museum and the annual Barnum Festival.

Not sure what the City of Bridgeport finally decided to do, but now it seems that the Barnum Museum is participating in One Book, One Middletown's celebration of Water for Elephants. The museum will host a seminar on the life of PT Barnum tomorrow.

Side note: I like the very prominent and direct fundraising appeal on the museum's website: "You Mean A Lot To Us And We Need Your Help!" At it's most basic, that's what all nonprofits need to convey to their supporters.

Evangelical Groups are Still Okay in the Economy, What About Museums?

According to Jeff over at Donor Power Blog, evangelical organizations are actually doing okay during the recession, and on top of that, they are also employing specific strategies to their fundraising approaches to help keep their heads above water during this trying economic times. This is according to a survey from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Some of the strategies that they are now employing include increasing one-on-one contact with key donors, changing the style of their message and specifically developing materials that address how the organizations are responding to the economic crisis.

So what about museums? Anyone have stats yet about how their fundraising yields are comparing with the past few years? Have any museums been making changes in their messages or approaches to fundraising? What has been working? What hasn't?

E-Newsletters a Waste of Time?

This is slightly old news now--I'm already falling behind!!--but Jeff over at Donor Power Blog recently mentioned an article from Third Sector Online that stated that "Email newsletters to supporters are a waste of time." This apparently comes from President Obama's digital strategist. But neither the article nor Jeff's post actually cites any hard data to back this up--other than the overwhelming success of the Obama online campaign. Neither does the article differentiate between the different sorts of newsletters and e-newsletters out there in the nonprofit world. For example, museum organization newsletters tend to have articles about topics relevant to their membership rather than just status updates on the organizations themselves. So, Mr. Gensemer, are those e-newsletters a waste of time, too?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Coping Strategies: The Beginnings of a List

Okay. So every day I read about more badness happening in the museum world due to the economy. But all of this "badness" is actually the implementation of coping strategies. What are these strategies and which museums are implementing them? Here's the beginning of a list, I imagine it will continue to grow.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
Detroit Institute of Arts
High Museum
Philadelphia Art Museum
San Diego Art Museum

Delay of Capital Projects
Cincinnati Art Museum
Indianapolis Museum of Art
St. Louis Art Museum
Museum of Tolerance

Raised Admission Fees
Art Institute, Chicago
Brooklyn Museum

Cancellation of Programs
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
Dallas Museum of Art

Selling Collections
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis

These could all be construed as negative strategies. But there are some more positive strategies being employed, too. It's just that these can tend to have a smaller economic impact. These strategies include creative fundraising idea employed at the Queens Museum of Art, innovative programming at MOMA and the Hammer, new advertising campaigns and reaching out to new audiences through the Internet like at the Brooklyn Museum.

Sign on San Diego
Dallas News
New York Times
Employment Spectator
Sign on San Diego
New York Times
LA Times
New York Times

More on Increased Attendance for Museums

What I like about this article is that, well, yes, it is happy news about museum attendance in the past year, but it also talks about the difficulties and inaccuracies with using attendance as a metric. First of all, what do we count as a visit? Do we count everyone who walks in the door? What if a staff member walks in the front door instead of the staff entrance the guard doing the clicking doesn't recognize the staff member? What about museum members? They aren't bringing in additional money with their repeated visits, at least not through admissions. What about other sorts of members who may have reciprocal privileges and can therefore visit the museum for free? What about school groups--do they get counted separately? So, yes, it is good that museum visit numbers are up, but what does that really mean when all is said and done?

Second, the article offers suggestions for why we are seeing an increase in attendance, such as the fact that astronomical gas prices have kept people closer to home--talk of "staycations" were all the rage this past summer, or citing the "Bilbao effect" (note: the Bilbao effect, when the architecture of a museum inspires and increase in visitorship, is a temporary effect and should not be counted upon for sustained increases!).

Video Game Heaven

Wow, this is another bit of news that is definitely for the geek in me. The Strong Museum is opening up a new exhibit of 15,000 gaming consoles and handheld gaming devices. That's a whole lotta gamin' goin' on. According to CEO G. Rollie Adams, the idea behind the new National Center for the History of Electronic Games is to explore how electronic games "are having a profound effect on the way we learn and the way we interact with each other."

Meet George Jetson...

More coolness in the news! Anyone see the flying car at MOS in Boston yesterday? As a sci-fi fan I'm always tickled when some technological advancement that is portrayed in the distant future in the novels appears in real-life today. Today a flying car, tomorrow a transporter?

Museums Beat Casinos, 54-32

More interesting reports regarding museums and the down-turned economy. According to the recently released economic census, museums saw a 54% increase in receipts between 2002 and 2007, whereas theme parks, casinos and other competing leisure time destinations only increased 32%. AAM President Ford Bell is quoted as citing the fact that more museums tend to focus on value-added (my term, not his) ancillaries to round out one's visit to a museum, such as improved dining and shopping experiences. But casinos and theme parks offer all of those "enhancements" (Bell's word) and enticements, too. So why the significant difference in the increases? Is it that the entertainment industry has been offering value-added experiences for longer, so they didn't have as far up to go? Or is that the American public really does love museums that much more than gambling and Mickey Mouse? I sure hope it's the latter rather than the former... What do you think?

The Ys Have It

Okay, this is cool for several reasons. First, it's about a woman with my name, who actually spells it the same way (with two ls and a y)! This is unusual. But so she must be cool if for only that reason. Except there are two more reasons why she is cool: she is a marine biologist working with stellar sea lions (awesome) and she has just been short-listed to be an astronaut. Way. Cool. Let's here it for aquariums, for stellar sea lions, for space and for women with my name--whoo hoo!