Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guest Post: Shaking up the Ecological Landscape

Elizabeth Merritt is the director of the Center for the Future of Museums, a new project of the American Association of Museums (AAM). In this post, she describes the thinking behind the Center and asks for your help in shaping its future.

When I was given the opportunity to found the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) I had been working for nearly 10 years with Museum Assessment and Accreditation at AAM. These are programs that encourage museums to conform to proven models of success (standards and best practices). I had begun to see potential drawbacks to relying entirely on this approach, and CFM is an opportunity to provide a counterbalance. My training is in biology, so I am going to use an ecological metaphor to explain my thinking on this.

In a stable environment, like a climax forest or the African savanna, animals that have few young and invest a lot of effort in rearing them tend to be highly successful. (Think elephants, for example.) Often these organisms have little variation, from generation to generation, because they have worked out a near-perfect fit to the niche they occupy. Change is more likely to be bad (maladaptive) than good. This is called a “K” strategy. In rapidly changing environments, more species adopt an “r” strategy—they have lots and lots of offspring, most of which die, and often high levels of genetic variation. (Grasshoppers, for example.) They flood the unstable, disturbed landscape with the potential next generation, and see who survives. r-selected species are sometimes called opportunistic, while K-selected species are described as being in equilibrium.

I would argue that for the past century, museums have been operating in equilibrium. Individually and as a field they have flourished by adopting a K strategy. Relatively few new museums are started each year, and those that do rarely fail (compared, for example, to the rate of start ups and failures for small businesses). And when individual museums invest in projects, such as exhibits, they tend to put a lot of their resources into proven models (gallery, furniture, labels, marketing, audio guides, associated programs), and count on them succeeding. In a stable environment, that worked pretty well. But everything now points to a profound shift in the economic, demographic, political, social and technological environment in which we operate. I think we need to encourage museums to be more opportunistic—try lots of new things with relatively small investment of resources, knowing that most of them will fail and learning from those that succeed. Maybe we need to encourage experimental start-up museums to try entirely new ways of operating, accepting that many of them might close if their approaches don’t work out.

This proposition begs two big questions: what new things might museums try, and how can they afford the risk, even those requiring relatively small investments? I am trying to engineer CFM to help provide solutions to those questions—to be a kind of “skunk works” for the whole museum field.

First—where do we get new ideas about how museums might operate? Preferably ideas that come with some sort of track record suggesting they might be good ideas rather than duds. Here’s where another ecological concept comes in handy, something called the “edge effect,”—the phenomenon of two different habitats butting up against each other. Where a forest gives way to grassland, for example, or a lake meets the shore, the biological diversity of this edge tends to be richer and more varied than in either habitat alone. Museums benefit from the intellectual equivalent of the edge effect. If we rub up against other fields—political science, psychology, games theory, the entertainment industry—we will encounter concepts that may be old hat (or cool innovations) in those fields, but have interesting new applications when transposed to museums. In fact, I am demonstrating the intellectual edge effect here, exploring how an ecological concept applies to museology!

I am acutely aware, however, that most museum staff don’t have time to go looking in other sectors for good ideas that might shake up their thinking, especially stretched as thin as they are by the national financial crisis. This is one area where CFM can help—we can spend time trawling for innovative thinkers who are interested in contributing their ideas to how discoveries in their fields of work might be adapted by museums. Some museums are already pioneering this approach, and CFM can help share what they find so that other museums can benefit. For example, Gary Vikan at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is starting the Center for Applied Research in the Arts to explore new ways to fulfill the museum’s mission, drawing from fields of study not usually associated with research in art museums, such as anthropology and neuroscience, and theoretical work on cognitive behavior and creativity. That is a fascinating approach to taking a new look at the way people interact with and benefit from art.

The Center is reaching outside the field to begin making such connections. Working with Dr. Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) we are mining her expertise on futures forecasting and games design to explore what games can teach museums about creating compelling experiences and influencing people’s behavior. Over 100 museum practitioners have participated in the IFTF Massive Multiplayer Online Forecasting game Superstruct, exploring how society and museums can adapt to challenges that may face us ten years from now. IFTF’s forecasters created a future scenario that is entirely plausible, though at the extreme end of the spectrum, combining the “superthreats” including a worsening energy crisis, increased epidemic disease and refugees displaced by economic, political and climatic upheavals. One of the results is a report from the future CFM (on its ten-year anniversary!) Museums and Society 2019. This wiki document is a collaborative picture of how museums are affected by the future described in the IFTF game forecasts, and how they are helping society to cope. This document is still being edited through April 2009, and will be shared at the AAM annual meeting—I encourage you to contribute your thoughts! Dr. McGonigal’s CFM lecture on “Gaming the Future of Museums” (given at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 2, 2008) will be offered as a free webcast on Jan. 28. We are encouraging people to watch in groups and participate in the online reception following the lecture, to debate her ideas about the nature of happiness and what museums can learn from computer games.

We have also worked with James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors to create a somewhat more conservative forecast of the future of museums in twenty-five years: Museums and Society 2034: Threats and Potential Futures. This report is a jumping off point for an exploration of how we as a field will deal with these trends. For example, in twenty-five years this country will be majority minority. Currently, only one in ten museum visitors and twenty-five percent of staff are non-Caucasian. This does not bode well. It gets even more alarming when considered in light of James’ and Susie’s other research which suggests that most people who become life-long passionate museum advocates have a seminal museum experience between the ages of five and nine. What can museums do now to increase the opportunities for minority children to have a “museum conversion” experience? If we miss this opportunity, we decrease the chance that this growing segment of the population will support museums in the future, or transmit a love of museums to their children and grandchildren.

Other quick previews of projects CFM is exploring:
  • Working with Peter Bishop of the Futures Studies program of the University of Houston to conduct scenario planning with the field, based on the Reach Advisors report, modeling what museums can do now to shape a better future.
  • Exploring, with Peter Linett of Slover-Linett Strategies and the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago the possibility of creating an experimental laboratory for museum practice – a way to encourage radical thinking about what an exhibit (or a museum experience more generally) can be.
  • Creating a National Museum Forecasting network, modeled on programs such as the Millennium Project, identifying people across the country who can contribute to ongoing projections of trends in the museum field, analyze how trends in economics, culture, policy etc. will affect museums, and invite input from museum practitioners.
These projects may all take off or they may all fail, and that’s ok. Modeling the behavior we are encouraging in museums, we know we may test 10 ideas that flop for everyone that works. We are going to apply the principles of “evolutionary design”--start with a small, simple system, test it against the real world, and modify it incrementally to make it function better. This approach creates a nimble system, responsive to the need for rapid change. It also minimizes risk, as CFM will not invest heavily in pre-designed infrastructure that may turn out to be inappropriate. Instead, it will test many small pieces, building on those that work and discarding those that don’t. Evolutionary design encourages innovation by making failure of any trial component less expensive.

Speaking of feedback, the most important help I need right now is input from the field. We are looking for people who want to be involved in CFM—generating and testing ideas, making connections with creative thinkers outside the field, crowd-sourcing our museum forecasting. Please email me at or write a comment here if you want to join us in creating the future!

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking post - thanks for writing it.

A couple of points really stood out for me: how do we offer children of all backgrounds that seminal museum experience? On Monday, I spoke with a visitor to our children’s museum about how the word “museum” turns off many of his friends – he’s Latino and is a member of our museum, yet when he tells his community about us, the typical response is that people don’t feel museums are “for” them – and we’re not even a typical collections-based museum, we’re hands-on, interactive, indoors/outdoor etc

We created a new outreach program designed to create those seminal experiences by connecting with children from underserved communities in a very deep, multi-year way – a 3 year commitment to each school involved, with 4 visits to our site each year plus a fifth visit with their families here. Just the difference between their first visit, when they may have never been on a bus or across the Golden Gate Bridge, to now, their 2nd or 3rd visit where they walk onsite like the own it – it’s really remarkable.

Also, we’ve recently repositioned ourselves to focus on nurturing childhood creativity – with the belief that in 20 years, our young visitors will be graduating from college into a world likely to be vastly different from today, and to succeed they will need to have developed their creative intelligence – the ability to see patterns where others don’t, to make novel connections between disparate ideas etc. The informal learning that happens at all types of museums is uniquely able to develop this intelligence – especially in that liminal “edge” zone you wrote about.

Can't wait to hear others thoughts - I'm really interested to see how museums can adapt to the new habitat - not just in how we develop museums or exhibits etc, but how can we survive as institutions when typical non-profit development tactics are not working in this economy?

irasocol said...

First, to comment on Jennifer's comment above, I think "we" so often forget what is presented by everything "we" "do," from the bame (or the fact that we are perceived as a "museum") to the way the doors look, to what meets you as you walk inside. Like the school chronicled by Annette Lareau in "Home Advantage" which never understood what it is like for a parent who did badly in school to enter that school, or the library I worked with that had a list of "lost book charges" as the first thing you saw on the entry hall circulation counter, we send out tons of signals telling people to stay away. Breaking through that... getting the first successful visit, as Jennifer suggests, is a huge thing.

But back to that "edge." Learning happens at intersections. It happens when things come together. Perhaps my most memorable "history museum" experience was something in the 1980s called (I think) "The Great Original Manhattan Shoreline Project" which drew lower Manhattan's original shore on the streets as a double line, green on the inside, blue on the outside. Walking along it, or glimpsing it in the midst of Manhattan's manmade canyons, allowed a personal experience with both the past and the idea of urban development that no map on a wall, no model, no video, could have created.

Or I think of the "Time and Again" tours I used to give friends in New York, the layering of stories, adjusted to the variance of questions brought by people from so many different places.

Or even the openings of "senior art shows" at universities where you interact with the artists and watch them interact with each other.

How to capture this? Or not capture it, but open it, make it accessible and available in ways that people can reach for it as they want and need it.

Well, I'm up for trying. I think we have the technologies and we have the moment. Now we need the energy and the buy in to the experiments.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Very thought-provoking--thanks, Elizabeth, and thanks Nina for hosting a guest. While you're right that museum staff don't necessarily have time to *search out* new projects and ideas--thanks for doing some of that for us--looking for those edge experiences you're talking about can refresh us. (This is especially important right now when many of us are working flat out to keep our museums above water.) At the last AAM Annual Meeting, I resolved to attend only visionary, think-outside-the-box sessions, and I came away energized by Steven B. Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good for You," design lessons from non-museum settings, and the keynotes.

It's an exciting time, between economic, demographic, and technological seachange, a great opportunity for museums to make ourselves even more important to our communities.