Friday, February 17, 2017

Futurist Friday: The Science of Prediction

Hey museum futurists, this is just a quick note to point you towards a great long read: the February issue of Science magazine, which is devoted to prediction.

The issue kicks off with a brief essay by Barbara Jasny and Richard Stone on how big data and machine learning is pushing the limits of prediction. I'm happy to see these authors remind us that purpose of prediction isn't to convince us that we know what will happen, but to help us envision possibilities. "Researchers may still fall far short of predicting outcomes with the precision that policy-makers long for," they write, "but the scenarios that they now can envision should help shape a better future."

The issue includes essays on:

  • the potential that data mining of social media may be more accurate than traditional political polling
  • predicting armed conflict
  • the predictability of scientific discovery 
  • the use of "forecasting tournaments" to bring probability data into policy debates (publishing this note, as I am, on the #dayoffacts, I am particularly pleased to recommend this article to your attention.)
  • using big data to tackle policy issues such as resource allocation
  • how predictive algorithms can be integrated into social science
  • the frontiers of predicting human behavior.

I've just read the introduction and abstracts so far. This should keep me busy for awhile! Would love to hear your thoughts if you download and dive in as well. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Lessons on Museums and Labor from the Southeast

Hi all, Nicole here. Today, I want to share some of my thoughts about museums and the future of museum work that have evolved in the wake of last month’s inaugural Future of Education Road Trip.  Over the course of the trip, I had a chance to talk with many thoughtful and committed museum professionals about their visions for the future of museum work. My colleague Sage Morgan-Hubbard and I asked pointedly about how our colleagues in the field were thinking about their own work lives. We initiated conversations with the following questions:
Community Curation at Atlanta History Center
  • What trends do you see in the nature of work (or in the museum workforce)? 
  • What do you want people to know about your vision for the future of work? What does the future of labor look like to you?

  • What do you wish the rest of the country knew about work in your city, state, or region?

Not every person I talked to answered every question. More often than not, discussions of the first question opened up into broader dialogue on the challenges of the profession. Although I’m still processing the insights of people we spoke with, some key themes stand out. Firstly, across the Southeast, museumers I spoke with called for more storytellers and less content masters as they envisioned the future of work in their field.  Secondly, museums we visited across the Southeast were forging new partnerships with people who have expertise outside of the museum field. By collaborating with food co-ops, local educators, and parents and guardians among others, museums in the states we visited were expanding the definition of “museum worker” in practice and re-thinking what it means to do museum work. Lastly, many of the folks I talked with were leveraging community power to implement new and non-traditional approaches to work in their institutions. Over and over again, and across various cities and states, museum professionals emphasized that museum work cannot simply prioritize collections, but must consider their collections in concert with feedback from thought leaders, cultural influencers, and members of their local communities.

A Note on Education and Labor

As we planned the trip, Sage Morgan-Hubbard and I decided early on that we would consider the future of education alongside issues of museum labor. The latter has been a focus of much of my work as an ACLS fellow and museum futurist here at CFM. But, I must admit, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me just how closely these issues were connected. Starting out, Sage and I understood that education and labor were linked.  I knew, for instance, that the pipeline for training museum professionals is one critical place where inequality can become sedimented. If museum studies programs in this country are 80% white and 80% female, then it can hardly be said that our channels for professionalization are as inclusive as they might be. And this statistic says nothing of the ways that class also shapes our profession. The high costs of graduate education in this country combined with depressed wages in our field mean that young people interested in museum work are increasingly forced to find additional forms of income support, either by working multiple jobs or by relying on family contributions. A recent editorial in the online platform Artsy tackles this question of class head-on by asking, “Can Only Rich Kids Afford to Work in theArt World?” I recommend this article to anyone interested in thinking through the questions of class and access in the field.

Labor and Education at BCRI
The link between labor and education in museums, however, was dramatized for us in an exhibition at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI). Next to an installation demonstrating the differences between classrooms for white and black students in segregated Birmingham was a plaster rendering of stacks of books and shirts side-by-side.  The stacks of books to the left represented the fact that in 1944, the student-teacher ratio in African American classrooms in the region was 42.8:1, and 24.1:1 in white schools. Next to it, a collection of sculpted shirts provided the visual and physical representation for the fact that in 1950, 73% of black males in the region worked as laborers compared to 33% of their white counterparts. The curatorial choice to place education in conversation with labor in such a clear, digestible way underlined for Sage and I that our collaboration was on the right track.

More Storytellers, Less Content Masters

One professional we spoke to during our trip summed up their vision for the future of museum work by saying, “we need more storytellers and less content masters.” Many people I met with shared a version of this sentiment. Museums across the Southeast are refusing to turn away interns who hadn’t taken the coursework in art history and museology that many institutions imagine as prerequisite, choosing instead to use museum internships as training grounds for young people to learn about the field.

Partnering with External Experts

Teen Team Alum (l), Virginia Shearer at the High (r)
Across the trip, I met with museum professionals at institutions of varying sizes who actively sought out the wisdom and expertise of people outside of the museum field proper. Museum professionals like Dr. Calinda Lee, at the Atlanta History Center, included the voices of educators, musicians, and artists as she and her team were building out their core exhibition. At the High Museum of Art, also in Atlanta, teens develop programming alongside the staff. The High’s Teen Team situates youth as experts in public engagement even as the program trains young people in museum practice. At the WhitneyPlantation in Wallace, Louisiana, Director of Operations Ashley Rogers prioritizes hiring staff from the local area. Members of the staff---from front-of-house positions to operations teams—have deep personal connections to the land and to the stories of the plantation.

Leveraging Community Power

I learned that museums can leverage the power of the entire community as they meet their staffing needs. This does not mean only holding focus groups and community meetings. It means hiring persons from outside of the museum to develop programming, even on a project-specific or consulting basis. Leveraging community power also means exposing young people to museum careers—not just in the hopes of that they will become museum people someday, but because the skills they learn through museum work link up to other facets of their professional lives. As I continue to unpack the revelations from this trip, I am haunted by a question posed to us by Jeff Kollath, Executive Director of Stax Museum of American Soul Music. He asked, “What if we thought about museum jobs as empowering? What would that mean?” These questions open up into others for me, questions that I invite you all to reflect on. What happens when we prioritize interpersonal skills and broader professional experience in our museum hiring practices? What might happen if we make training more accessible for museum professionals? How might we imagine museum work as empowering to both our staffs and our communities?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Confronting the Trauma of War

I’m often challenged by people outside our field to convince them that museums aren't just nice, but necessary--that museums can and do serve essential human needs. Providing healing, catharsis, reconciliation—I can’t think of any role more essential in a community wounded by war and ethnic conflict.Today’s guest post is by Harun Buljina, a PhD. candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University in New York currently working as a research associate at the newly opened War Childhood Museum under aegis of Columbia’s History in Action program.

I joined the War Childhood Museum’s collection long before I joined the team behind it. As a child of Sarajevo’s infamous siege in the early 1990s, my personal history was directly relevant to its mission statement: to document the experiences of those who grew up in the maelstrom of the Bosnian war some 25 years ago. And so, at the urging of friends who were already involved, I contributed my memories to its growing video archive. Scattered recollections of the historical and the everyday – candle-lit bomb shelters, blue-helmed peacekeepers, sniper fire and birthday parties – thus became part of a greater, public whole. In the time since, I have come to appreciate the museum’s role not only in providing opportunities for individual catharsis, but as a vital communal institution in Bosnia’s fractured social landscape. The Center for the Future of Museums rightly emphasizes how museums can help societies face the future; in Sarajevo, the War Childhood Museum does so by helping it face the past.

In the summer of 2010, young Sarajevan author and entrepreneur Jasminko Halilović asked for condensed, 160-character answers to a far more complex question: “What does a war childhood mean to you?” Collecting over 1,000 replies and editing them into a book in 2013, he noticed that many of the respondents tied their memories to particular objects: playground chin-up bars torn apart by mortar fire, a Guinness World Record-setting collection of humanitarian aid wrappers, ballet shoes and stuffed animals. This was around the same time that Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk published his “modest manifesto for museums,” in which he called for liberal-minded examples that would privilege individual stories and intimate settings over high culture and state narratives. Reflecting on both, Jasminko decided to build on the book by establishing the world’s first museum dedicated to the experience of growing up during war. Forming a small team in February 2015, he and his collaborators strove to stay true to the project’s crowdsourced roots, relying on grassroots enthusiasm and organic growth while purposely eschewing affiliation with any of the local political parties and their patronage networks.

Just under two years later, the team’s efforts have paid off. On January 28th of this year, the War Childhood Museum opened its doors to the public, a short uphill climb from the historic city center and in the same neighborhood where I myself grew up. Set in a previously dilapidated municipal building, its permanent exhibit showcases 50 items and their accompanying, contributor-submitted stories – a spectrum of colors, shapes and sizes against a minimalist backdrop. This aesthetic contrast echoes the museum’s methodological approach and overarching philosophy; beyond general humanitarian and pacifist concerns, it is careful not to impose any rigid ideological narrative on the collection, aiming as much as possible to let the items and their contributors speak for themselves. In a similar vein, the museum also maintains a separate video archive of oral history interviews, which the team transcribes, translates into English, and plans to make available to international researchers.

Properly evaluating the War Childhood Museum requires some understanding of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s post-war socio-political morass. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting in the country’s brutal, four-year war, but ensured that the wartime divisions between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs – the three legally-enshrined “constitutive nations” – fundamentally structured its new institutions. The resulting administrative system has been convoluted and dysfunctional in equal measure; a country of roughly 3.5 million people, Bosnia has 13 ministries of education. It has also effectively incentivized nationalist brinkmanship, with politicians from all sides regularly invoking wartime traumas to mobilize supporters and silence their critics – rhetoric that is both cynical and effective in a country where an estimated 10% of the population suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder. This institutionalized political gridlock and saber rattling has also translated into general government neglect for the arts and culture. Nonpartisan institutions that don’t adhere to any particular ethnic agenda are especially vulnerable. The National Museum in Sarajevo, for instance, was literally boarded up and closed for nearly three years, reopening only after an extended international solidarity campaign in September 2015.

The War Childhood Museum emerged from this context, and has succeeded despite encountering various levels of political obstructionism. Most immediately, it faced a protracted struggle to secure an adequate location in Sarajevo’s old town, where local government prefers to lend publicly owned spaces to cafés and restaurants over less profitable cultural initiatives. On a more national level, the Federal Ministry of Culture recently declined to provide the museum with any financial support for the current year, notably rejecting it as one of only 9 out of a total 105 applications to lack “broader cultural significance.” As a result, the museum has instead relied on a combination of crowdfunding, international aid, and volunteerism, actually contributing a net 80,000 KM (circa $45,000) to state coffers. Its most important contributions, however, are more difficult to quantify. Above all, the War Childhood Museum provides Bosnians with a rare opportunity to confront the traumas of their recent past without reinforcing ethnic boundaries. And in light of Bosnia’s staggering youth unemployment and ongoing brain drain, it also gives voice to the formative experiences of a generation particularly marginalized by the post-war political economy.

Last month’s opening of a permanent exhibit concludes the initial chapter of the War Childhood Museum’s story, but also heralds both new challenges and possibilities. Jasminko’s long-term vision is to develop our museum into the world’s largest archive on the impact of war on children and their future, possibly expanding to new locations and encompassing conflicts outside of Bosnia itself. In the shorter term, the upcoming summer tourist season will prove an important test of its current format and immediate economic viability. The team is correspondingly busy refining the existing exhibition, including developing a historically-informed introduction to the subject of childhood in war, and possibly incorporating an interactive component whereby visitors can opt to fund aid packets for children in current conflict zones. As streams of refugees fleeing their ravaged homelands once again demand the world’s attention, the images and stories of war’s youngest victims are frequently the most effective at piercing the news cycle and highlighting the human tragedy behind the headlines. The War Childhood Museum stands as a small testament to this sadly still-prevalent experience, rooted in its own society’s recent past but touching on themes that are increasingly relevant to the world at large.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Future of Education Road-Trip: Some Thoughts and Thanks

Octavia in action
Hi, Nicole here. Sage and I would like to thank all of the museum professionals, students, educators and artists who gave of themselves to support the inaugural Future of Education Road Trip! Thanks, as well, to the institutions that welcomed us so enthusiastically! We learned and experienced so much on our Southeastern tour: snow and ice in Virginia; sunshine in Charleston; lovely, brisk weather and rain in Memphis; sweet tea everywhere; and lots of road signs. One post cannot possibly capture all the gratitude we still feel, nor can it summarize all that we’ve learned from what the South has to teach museums. This post is a first step, really, to sketch out where we went and thank the many people who wished us well, showed us their sites, and lent their time to our inquiry. Sage and I will be blogging throughout the month about what we experienced, what we’ve taken away, and what conversations and work we will continue. You can follow Sage’s reflections at the Future of Education website for more information across the month. We will also be cross-posting here.

Here is a link to the Storify of our tweets from the road trip. We started out in the middle of a blizzard in a rented Jeep Cherokee that we unofficially named Octavia, after another intrepid woman of color futurist. As we drove farther South, more snow and ice met us with every mile. We ended up stopping outside Richmond, Virginia after driving a whopping total of 100 miles in two hours. We were unable to connect with the always-generous Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs and her partner Julia Sangodare Wallace, founders of the Mobile Homecoming Project that we used as a primary model for our trip. Nevertheless, they were with us in spirit as we travelled, with Alexis sending us good wishes regularly via email.

Inside The Levine Museum of the New South

Our next stop brought us to the Levine Museum of the New South, where we met with President and CEO, Kathryn Hill and Kamille Bostick, Vice President of Education and Programs. We strode into Charlotte with snow under our feet and salt residue on Octavia (more than once, I slipped on the ice). But on seeing the warmth of the museum’s visitors during its Three Kings’ Day celebration, I was reminded why we took this journey. Kathryn, Kamille, and the entire staff are unafraid to experiment with ways of making their museum reach across community divides and speak to broadening demographics in their region. Their decision to host the Three Kings’ celebration was a direct response to Latinx community members’ suggestions on how to extend the conversations begun in the exhibition, Nuevolution! “Relevancy matters,” Kamille explained, “tell the stories of the people who walk through the door.”

This first museum visit set the tone for our trip and taught us about the power of museums’ being responsive to communities and to change. As we traveled, we met with museum professionals across many different kinds of institutions who overwhelmingly shared the following traits:
  • Commitment to finding different ways of problem-solving
  • Belief in the value of informal and formal assessment
  • Desire to reach children and youth through innovative and participatory projects 
  • Interest in increased community accountability
  • Awareness of the role of the training pipeline in expanding (or limiting) access to museum career possibilities 
Student exhibitions, The Museum School
Marion High School students in South Carolina talked with us about the value of critical thinking and personalized learning. I was struck by how keenly aware they were of social and economic inequality, and by their sharp assessment of how resource allocation shaped their lives. In Atlanta, at the Museum School of Avondale Estates, we met teachers incorporating STEAM education using museums as a model for inquiry. Students develop their own exhibitions and serve as docents to grownup visitors. 

In Charleston, SC, we heard museum professionals from throughout the region reflect on the stakes of historical interpretation. In a city that boasts of being home to the oldest museum in the South (The Charleston Museum), museum workers across multiple functional areas talked passionately about how to incorporate the lives of residents whose histories have traditionally been omitted from the stories the area has told about itself. I also heard museum professionals speak hopefully about the futures they might create together.

Nicole (l) and Sage (r) at the High Museum of Art in ATL
At the New Orleans roundtable, participants taught me just how limited “scalability” is as a frame for museum work. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the museums in that city had to re-think their responsibility to their communities. How could museums create spaces of play, wonder, and learning when they were physically uninhabitable? How do the various conditions under which (some) residents  returned shape audience engagement? What is the museum’s responsibility to visitor engagement when its local visitorship is physically displaced? How will new visions of New Orleans museums help people think about ecology and resource management? All these questions, while having national import, have a distinctly place-based context and demand place-based, community-driven solutions.

Rosa Parks Bus-Boycott-themed transit tour with the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, AL
From this Road Trip as a "laboratory on wheels," I came to know that museums can offer respite, that they can be places of quiet contemplation and individual study. But I was equally thrilled to witness how museums can also--and often at the same time--be sites for gathering, for community-building. Indeed, museums are more than the sums of their collections, staffs, programs, and exhibitions. They provide opportunities for “being together with others” and teach us to hear the resonances of the past in the visions we craft for our future.

Check the Storify link for a site-by-site view of the Road Trip!

Sage and I extend our deepest gratitude to the individuals and organizations who supported and shared with us on this inaugural trip:

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, The Mobilehomecoming Project

Kathryn Hill , CEO
Kamille Bostick, Vice President of Education and Programs.

The Students and Staff of Marion High School (Marion, SC)
Daris Gore, Principal, Marion High School
Iris Stackhouse-Barr, Marion High School
C. Johnson, Marion High School

Andrew R. Stout, Museum Director
Kimberly Washburn, Curator of Education

Nichole Myles, Executive Director

Carl Borick, Director
Stephanie Thomas, Chief of Education

Curtis J. Franks, Curator

Brenda Peart

Porchia A. Moore

Susan Perry,  Executive Director, Southeastern Museums Conference

Atlanta History Center (Atlanta, GA) 
Dr. Calinda Lee, Historian

The students and educators of The Museum School
Katherine Kelbaugh, Principal

Ellie Grebowski, Assistant to the Director of Education
Virginia Shearer, Eleanor McDonald Storza Director of Education

Civil Rights Memorial Staff, Southern Poverty Law Center

Adrienne van der Valk, Deputy Director, Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center

Ahmad Ward, Vice President of Education and Exhibitions

Sylvea Hollis

Dr. Tondra Loder-Jackson, Associate Professor, Educational Foundations Program
The University of Alabama at Birmingham

Attorney Randall L. Woodfin (Birmingham School Board Member)

Jeff Kollath, Executive Director
Lisa Allen, Director, Group Sales and Events

Terri Freeman, Director 
Noelle Trent, PhD., Director of Interpretation, Collections, and Education

The Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University (Jackson, MI)
Dr. Robert Luckett, Director

Dr. Rico Chapman, Director
Keith Lamont McMillian, Program Manager

Noel E. Didla, Jackson State University

Dr. Fari Nzinga, Southern University at New Orleans (New Orleans, LA)

Daniel Johnson, Director of Engagement and Learning
Adam Farcus, Hollingsworth Fellow

Kali Akuno, Co-Director

Julia Bland, Executive Director
Amy Kirk Duvoisin, Education Director

Andrea Stricker, Administrative Director
Kimberly Coleman, Outreach Coordinator, Collections Manager

Whitney Plantation (Edgard, LA)
Ashley Rogers, Director of Operations 

Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum
Ian Breckenridge-Jackson, Co-Founder

Ronald W. Lewis, Founder and Curator

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: I, Museum Robot

#robots @ScienceMuseum #autism @shadowrobot @peppertherobot 
Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Activism, homelessness and a new kind of museum

Museum people are deeply engaged with the issue of whether, when, and how our organizations should take a stand on mission-related issues. When should museums be neutral and “just present the facts?” When should museums stake out a position and try to create change? Readership of the guest post “BeyondNeutrality,” by Sean Kelley of Eastern State Penitentiary, is at 17,000 page views and climbing. That makes it, by a wide margin, the most read post on this blog--which impelled me to look for additional examples of museums that have consciously decided to be agents of change. One result of that search is today’s guest post, by Matthew Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness. I’ve been posting news about his museum on Twitter (you can follow them @our_MoH) and Facebook (where they are MuseumofHomelessness). Now I’m happy to share a bit of their story first-hand.

The Museum of Homelessness is the first museum devoted to this topic in the UK. It is being developed by people from all walks of life, including those who have been homeless. Just over two years old, the museum was founded on the premise that society needs an organisation like this to help us learn what has gone before in order to make a difference today. The UK has experienced an explosion of homelessness over the last five years making it a topic that affects almost everyone here.

Our museum has been called an activist museum, and there are indeed many ways our work might be viewed as activist. For example; by saying that people without academic qualifications or experience who have been homeless can be curators of museums; by founding a museum on a housing estate in the UK; by saying that the primary purpose of our collection and archive is to enable people to make social change or work through trauma or both; by founding a museum on the basis of a social need rather than to preserve an inherited collection of objects. But to me and my colleagues, none of this is really activism. It is simply common sense. It would be unethical to address homelessness without putting lived experience at its core. We feel that a museum of homelessness must create social change and we therefore need to take a particular stance in our work. 

The word activism is becoming increasingly prominent in the museum field. There is increasing recognition that museums must respond in some way to contemporary challenges. (This belief was demonstrated, for example, by the fast-paced discussion in a recent #museumhour Tweet chat that explored how museums respond to political events.) But there is no consensus about what activist museums should do: inspire activism in others, back a particular cause or just programme in a particular way. This lack of consensus is hardly surprising, given that activists don’t tend to work on five year strategic plans—activism is week-to-week, responsive and very direct. There isn’t much that is institutional about it. So for museums, the word activism tends to be thought about in relation to something else. It surfaces when the museum’s interface with social justice or other real-world issues is framed in contrast to the ‘core’ work of museum - collecting, preservation, and display. Being a new museum, the Museum of Homelessness is in the privileged position of being unencumbered by the baggage that comes with institutional history.
Whether you think my colleagues and I are activists or not, homelessness is on the rise and so our museum will be exploring this set of conditions in our very first public programme – State of the Nation – at Tate Modern April 8 and 9, and Tate Liverpool in July. This free weekend will explore homelessness by bringing together people from all walks of life to ask the questions that matter in 2017. During this weekend we will work with artist David Tovey, an outrageously creative formerly homeless artist who in a few short years has gone from death’s door to being name checked by Tate director Nicholas Serota. We will hear from homelessness sector leaders and we will share objects and stories that have existed on the margins of society but will now find a home in one of the world’s premier art galleries.

Do events such as this signal the end of museum neutrality? Can the Museum of Homelessness honestly say it’s presenting objects and stories at State of the Nation in a balanced and objective way? We certainly intend to, but when you work with and for marginalised people the terms of engagement are a little different. You present a particular set of truths - those that are often hidden or ignored.

Some people object to museum activism, contending organizations in our field should not take a political standpoint or promote a particular agenda. Museums are highly trusted institutions, they point out, and neutrality, as one foundation of that trust, is not to be trifled with. I believe this argument ignores the fact that museums are inherently political institutions already and that the idea of activism needs greater exploration in general. At the Museum of Homelessness, we are setting out to rebalance the power relations and shift representations. Borrowing from a long tradition in the homelessness world, we also create spaces where people can be political, have their voices heard and learn from each other.

When viewed in this context museum activism starts to look a lot more like being an active citizen and in times like this that is a very important thing. So with State of the Nation, our museum is tackling a pressing issue immediate to our time. Some of it will be loud and some of it will be quiet and it’ll be very far from neutral. But ultimately, it’ll be about people learning, establishing the facts, and sharing stories. And ultimately, isn’t that is what museums are all about?