Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Playing in the Museum Sandbox

Readers of CFMs TrendsWatch reports and followers of this Blog will know of my fascination with the emerging business model of museums running co-working spaces. Its such a genius use of museum resources (staff expertise, visitors, inspiring space, the general aura of cool) to leverage earned and philanthropic income. Earlier this year Katrina Sedgwick, director of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, contributed a guest post about ACMI X, her museums venture into coworking. So when I stumbled across a particularly interesting immersive VR theatre project this summer, I was delighted (though unsurprised) to find it was created by an ACMI X member. Katrina put me in touch with Sandpit, the studio that created the project, and I invited them to tell us about coworking in a museum from the point of view of a tenant.

My name is Dan Koerner and I’m a creative director of Sandpit, a digital studio based in both Adelaide and Melbourne, Australia. Sandpit is slightly unusual in the work we produce in that we predominantly make things where the physical world meets the digital. Some examples from the last couple of years: an interactive after-hours audio tour of Melbourne Zoo, a web-connected phone booth for sharing stories at Penguin Books and an answering machine service for artists in Reykjav√≠k, Iceland. Increasingly, we’re working on a wide range of exhibits for museums.

"I, Animal"--An Interactive, After-Hours Tour
of Melbourne Zoo
Screens often take a backseat in the work we produce as we focus on allowing users to use their eyes, ears and hands in the real world, augmented by Sandpit’s technologies. For that reason, it was interesting when, in October last year, we were approached by Katrina Sedgwick,  the CEO for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Katrina invited us into  ACMI X, a new co-working space for artists, freelancers and organisations working in and around the moving image in Melbourne. ACMI X was to be a purpose-built space, embedded within the museum. The idea of the space was to foster a creative culture that champions collaboration, innovation and sustainability for individuals, collectives and businesses working with the moving image.

There are so many obvious benefits to this scenario that it’s almost strange to think of it as innovative. Why haven’t institutions been doing this forever?  As tenants we have relaxed, fairly unstructured access to the museum and its staff. A monster truck-scale coffee machine in a beautifully designed and cavernous kitchen and social space encourages casual conversations. The interiors, designed by Melbourne legends Six Degrees, give smaller organisations and freelancers the kind of aesthetic clout they wouldn’t have access to on their own. This stuff might sound trivial - but it helps you impress fancy clients.

We have the benefit of an extremely broad skillset amongst tenants – from developers, to motion graphics designers to VR producers to writers to photographers. If you have a question that needs answering, chances are that ACMI X houses someone who could answer it. To be honest, the holy grail of inter-office collaboration on actual projects has not yet occurred however this takes time, trust and stars aligning. We’re not quite there yet, but we’ll get there. I certainly know who I’ve got my sights on.

There is also the added benefit of being in close proximity to ACMI as a commissioning body. ACMI recently acquired a VR work by Sandpit, originally commissioned by Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney called ‘Ghosts, Toast and the Things Unsaid’. This work has an audience of two don ghost sheets and travel back in time to see a relationship between two characters deteriorate. Eventually, participants realise they have become the ghost of one of the two characters, Steve or Maude. As you look around their apartment, you can hear the inner thoughts of either character depending on which one you look at. In the end, it’s about the things you wished you’d said but never did.
Ghosts, Toast and The Things Unsaid
– Digitally Augmented Immersive Theatre

Starting this Halloween, ACMI has engaged Sandpit to create an installation for the ‘Ghosts’ project that looks somewhere between a funeral parlour and carnival side-show. Audience members wear a VR headset, topped with the iconic ghost sheet and get whisked off to one of two booths where they arbitrarily become the ghost of either Steve or Maude.

It would be very dangerous of me to say that a definite benefit of co-working with a museum is that they will commission your work. Sandpit finds itself in a very privileged position because of this. The commissioning process, however, could not be running more smoothly. Starting with our contract, I’ve been able to run back and forth between my desk and ACMI’s legal team to ask and answer questions rapidly. This meant from first draft to execution, the contract manifested in record time. ACMI’s social media team sit directly in front of me and we’ve been able to devise a cunning social media campaign for the project, through a series of casual conversations. We have been able to pop over to ACMI’s Public Programs Manager, Helen Simondson’s desk to plan a seance party to launch the installation, – an idea that’s simmered due to our proximity rather than something that’s been cobbled together in a one-off meeting. Access to Seb Chan’s encyclopaedic museum knowledge is a matter of a five-second walk from my desk to his. ACMI’s bustling senior curator, Sarah Tutton, can whisk me away to the kitchen to talk through project logistics.

For this short period of time I can pretend, at least that I’m directly employed by ACMI, without being beholden to its larger corporate structures. And this is where ACMI itself can find value in its co-workers. Being either small organisations or freelancers, we are highly agile in the way we work. We all have small or singular chains of command and come up with ideas, make decisions and execute plans rapidly. ACMI as an organisation now has the ability to tap into this knowledge bank, either casually by the coffee machine, formally or both. This brings a hugely dynamic, surrogate workforce to ACMI that, on a tangible level adds a huge amount of capacity. On an intangible (and arguably more valuable) level, it creates a working environment that is more vibrant than a single organisation could ever be on its own.

Sandpit is a relatively small organisation but we are growing quickly. There will come a time in the future when we will outgrow our beloved home at ACMI X and move on. As alumni of the co-working space, I will be interested to see how our relationship with ACMI can continue. We’ll be advocates of the space but also perhaps industry partners who support the museum and its community however possible. Ultimately, it is this level of community-building on a local, national and international level that opportunities such as ACMI X engender. And in the end, it’s the conversations around the coffee machine that make it all possible.

‘Dial A Story’ – A Web-Connect Phone Booth

Friday, September 16, 2016

Futurist Friday: Emotional Intelligence

For your Friday future-break, here is a lovely short film by Dennis Sungmin Kim, exploring a future in which artificial intelligence has been supplemented by "artificial emotion."

ei: emotional intelligence from Dennis Sungmin Kim on Vimeo.

 Before you dismiss it as beautiful, but speculative, fiction, consider this: Pepper the "emotional support robot" is already on the market, programmed to read emotions and facial expressions, and to learn and grow as it interacts with people. When Pepper went on sale last year, the thousand units made available by SoftBank Robotics sold out within one minute. And while it (he? she?) has particularly powerful artificial intelligence (AI) powering its empathetic interactions, Pepper is only one of a number of therapy robots under development. 

So at some point in the future, we are going to have to grapple with the issues raised in Kim's animated fable--when does AI become sufficiently "I" to count as an autonomous being? The UK Office of Science and Innovation already foresees a day when robots demand the same rights as humans, including the right to love freely.  


Thursday, September 15, 2016

FutureProofing Natural History Collections

 When the Alliance chose financial sustainability as one of three areas of focus for our new strategic plan, I gravitated to one of the hardest challenges of all: how can we help create financially sustainable models for supporting biological research collections? To tackle that challenge, CFM is partnering with the Ecological Society of America and the Peabody Museum of Natural History for a workshop to be held at Yale University this December.

At “FutureProofing Natural History Collections: Creating Sustainable Models for Research Resources” natural history museum curators and collections staff, current and potential users of collections, sustainability experts, management research specialists, and future studies experts (that would be me) will spend two days mapping the most effective ways to quantify and report on the value of research collections, and generating ideas for new economic models that translate this value into support.

I believe it’s harder to find new and better support systems for natural history collections than it is to find new economic models for other kinds of museums and other areas of operations. NEW INC and ACMI X are showing how museums can capitalize on space, expertise and reputation to create co-working spaces that generate new income streams (earned and philanthropic). Museum Hack has shown us that dynamic, irreverent, participatory tours can command a premium price. And I’m morally convinced that museums are poised to capture some of the $18.4 billion in federal support for primary education (not to mention comparable private funds) as we show we can provide superior learning experiences. While it will take much work to inject ideas and approaches such as these into the mainstream, they can at least give paths to explore.
American Museum of Natural
History Frozen Tissue Collection

But research collections are a hard sell. Most people don’t even know we have them, and even fewer could name any tangible benefit they derive from shelves of fluid collections, frozen tissue samples, or a few hundred Cornell drawers filled with ticks. When pressed to make the case for how these collections benefit the public, our field generally trots out the same worn examples: identifying which bird hit an airplane; tracking vectors of disease and (more generally) documenting biodiversity. Not that these are bad things, but so far they haven’t been enough to make the case that either the government or individual citizens should pay for these benefits.

From a collections perspective, grant support has always been a dicey proposition. All too often support for the collections resulting from research are an afterthought, and museums’ responsibility to store and care for those collections, in essence, an unfunded mandate. This past March NSF announced it was putting an indefinite hold on their Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program—one of the few sources of funds devoted to the care, organization, maintenance, and cataloguing of biological collections. Even though the CSBR grants collectively only represented about 0.06% of the NSF budget, they were widely seen as critical to the field.

NSF eventually restored funding, albeit on a biennial basis (effectively halving the funds provided), and it does continue to express active concern for the health and well-being of research collections –see, for example, its funding of this workshop. I’ve got to sympathize with NSF’s dilemma—well-managed research collections only ever get bigger. If they never develop sustainable income streams, how can the federal government (particularly in this economic and political climate) ever hope to keep pace?

Smithsonian Museum of
Natural History
Ornithology Collection
I think there is a lot museums can do to make it easier for NSF, and other funders, to restore and grow support. At heart, the funding challenges faced by research collections are the same as those confronting all museums: how do we quantify and document the benefits we provide to society? How do we make a sound financial case that it’s worth it for some entity (whether that’s local, state or federal governments, private industry or other service providers) to pay for those benefits? What aspects of our resources and of our work have unexplored value for other users?

Is it going to be easy to make a better, more compelling case for funding, and discover new income streams? No, but we hope to make a good start in New Haven. If your museum or collection is pioneering new forms of support, through business ventures, partnerships or new products & services, or if you’ve found compelling new ways to document the value of your work, please shoot an email to me at emerritt (at) We have a few slots left in the workshop, and we’d love to hear first-hand from museums trying new approaches to financial sustainability for research collections.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What If Educators Ran a Museum?

I’ve been intrigued by the El Segundo Museum of Art since I first read about it in the Los Angeles Times when the museum opened in 2013. That article emphasized ESMoA’s focus on arts education, noting that four public schools are within walking distance of the museum’s  Main Street location. In the inaugural exhibition, some works were hung a mere one foot off the floor—toddler height! Today Chelsea Hogan, Education Specialist at ESMoA, gives us a first-hand account of this community museum’s educational philosophy.  

In 2012, while living in Los Angeles, I heard through a colleague about an interesting opportunity at a new place in El Segundo, California a town that I had only thought of as far away and by the airport. Brian and Eva Sweeney, an ambitious couple originally from Canada and Germany, respectively, were the founders, and their idea to build a storage space for their art collection was beginning to transform into an entirely different animal. The El Segundo Museum of Art quickly became ESMoA, a self-described “Art Laboratory” where I would play an instrumental role in propelling the education-focused mission.

Chelsea Hogan teaching at ESMoA
I and another educator were the first two employees. Yep, two educators were hired first. Before a director, before an exhibit designer, before an HR person. We were tasked with jump-starting the school program from concept to execution. We learned about the town, a somewhat traditional, conservative, and family-focused little community, and made connections with teachers and administrators. We visited the four nearby schools time and time again, until everyone started to learn our names. We began running the school program, a 90-minute experience featuring art making and student-driven conversations around original works of art.  

ESMoA is located on Main Street between a former post office and a Mexican restaurant, in the heart of the community. The front window is actually a giant door that  opens completely, allowing the sidewalk to merge seamlessly with the entryway. From the beginning, we wanted ESMoA to be a place where everyone feels welcome, and our location and the open window/door reinforces the idea that anyone can come in. Entry is always free, and most programs are free too, aside from select events for which a fee goes directly and entirely to a facilitator. Whenever anyone comes to ESMoA, an educator greets him or her, and we have a grid system that allows you to find the info on your own terms. There are no labels on the walls, but each artwork is accompanied by a number written on the floor, so visitors can select an artwork number on a grid that is available on our website and accessible via gallery iPads or their own smart phones. The number is connected to a website, which provides links for further research and a question that helps one to look deeper. In this way, visitors can acquire information through the grid system, the books available, or by speaking with an educator. Visitors are invited to make their own meaning, at the rate and in the fashion that they are comfortable with. This open and Constructivist interpretive structure encourages people to concentrate on looking at the art, rather than reading label copy. We have topical books available and offer a multigenerational scavenger hunt designed to help visitors of all ages look closer and engage with art.

ESMoA exhibits fine art--sometimes from the Sweeney’s own collection sometimes loaned works from other museums, galleries, and private collections--and displays them in installations we call Experiences. We call them this, because the intention is that the visitor truly experiences art, rather than showing up to learn a curator’s thesis on a label or wall text, as is often the case in typical institutions. Every few months, the gallery is completely transformed into thematic displays. Instead of attending an exhibition on 19th Century European Artists, for example, a visitor would experience various meditations on a theme; such as “FAME,” “TRUTH,” or “PLAN,” featuring art and historical objects from different time periods and places related to the theme. We’ve worked with curators from Germany and America, some who work independently and some whose full-time jobs are at neighboring museums such as the Getty Research Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Wende Museum. We consider ESMoA to be a laboratory where these curators can play with exhibition and interpretation.
Teaching at ESMoA

Nearly four years since opening, our staff has tripled, our efforts redoubled, but our mission remains the same. ESMoA is entirely education-driven, with a mission to “spread the spark of creativity.” My fellow education specialist, Holly M. Crawford, and I are encouraged to experiment and to create innovative, Experience-inspired programming for everybody. We’re given free rein to explore new programming avenues, guided by our shared desire to be a place where everyone--not just artists and academics--can be nourished by art.

We’ve held yoga and mindfulness meditation programs in the gallery. We have a program for 3 and 4-year-olds, and one for seniors. We have programs for families, and dating programs for singles. We have cooking classes and artist demonstrations such as a live-tattoo demonstration and a body painting installation. We have a pre-visit program connected to our school program, in which we take original works of art to classrooms. We have a teen program run by teens. We have a remarkable internship program for young adults with developmental delays, in which we teach them to work with school groups and eventually teach with us in the gallery. This year we received an IMLS grant to extend our efforts with this internship program into the virtual world, so that other museums can learn how to implement something similar.

In my experience, ESMoA’s education-centric model is in stark contrast to the more common museum culture which relegates educators to second class status. All too often I hear from my colleagues at other institutions that educational programs are an afterthought—and rarely are educators seen as having a significant voice within institutions. I hope ESMoA’s example can prompt more museums to put education in the center of our practice, so that everyone within the institution is truly thinking about the visitor experience. Education is, after all, at the core of many museum missions, isn’t it time that museums really practice what they preach?

Today, I’m happy to be at an education-driven “Art Laboratory” where, as an educator, I not only have a voice at the table, but am actually considered a major player, and a person of influence on the team. I’m proud of the programming we’ve done, and excited for the future.  

ESMoA opening of "Touch"

Friday, September 9, 2016

Futurist Friday: Superhuman

As you may have guessed from Wednesday's wordless post, I'm glued to the Paralympics this week. Today I'm encouraging you to watch this trailer for the 2016 Paralympic games titled "We're the Superhumans."

After you've had your mind blown by the abilities of these athletes (and dancers, and musicians), spend a bit of time thinking about the convoluted and increasingly problematic criteria we use to determine who is eligible to compete in which games (Olympic or Paralympic) and in which gender category. Consider the following:

Double amputee Oscar Pistorius had to petition the IOC to be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners--he was initially banned from the 2008 games due to concerns that his specially designed carbon fiber running blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was, eventually, allowed to compete. However, full-body swimsuits have been banned from competition, even though everyone (theoretically) could adopt this wearable technology.

A large number of male Olympians carry a variant of the EPOR gene that results in the production of additional red blood cells--which confers a tremendous advantage in speed or power sports. Competitors are banned from inducing the same effect through the use of hormones or hormone-promoting drugs.


Female athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone are banned from competing, or required to undergo chemical or surgical intervention to bring the amount of this hormone in their blood below a level considered "normal." (See this long and excellent article from The New York Times on the history of humiliating treatment of "intersex" athletes.)

I recently listened to episode 226 of the podcast 99% Invisible exploring how Belgian astronomer/mathematician Adolphe Quetelet first applied the concept of "average" to people in the early 19th century. This innovation shaped the standardization of military clothing and equipment (and, in turn, of civilian fashion sizing). One eventual ripple effect: the deaths of a large number of pilots in WWII, when it became evident that designing sensitive, high performance equipment for a fictional "average" airman meant it didn't work well for anyone.

Rapid developments in gene therapy, gene editing, prosthetics and neural implants will expand the range of human variation even further, making "average" even less meaningful as a benchmark for design--whether of spaces, equipment or regulations. 

Average is often conflated with normal, making anyone sufficiently far from the mathematical center "abnormal" and relegating them to the statues of "other."

Your Futurist Friday assignment: over the next few days, look at the world with fresh eyes. What concepts of "normal" or "average" shape the physical spaces, the written or unwritten rules of behavior of your environment? When do these principles of design result in places and policies that don't work for you, members of your family, or people you know. How would the world be different if they were designed around the full range of human ability and identity?  And with that in mind, is there anything you would change in your home, your neighborhood, your museum right now, to make it work for people who don't inhabit the vanishingly small mathematical point that is "average?"