Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Um, meow?

#MuseumCats Day #Twitter
(Photo from #Hermitage)

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Keeping up with the 2014 Trends: For Profit For Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

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

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

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

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch these videos and consider:

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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

#ecotourism #NorthKorea #Utopia

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Unaccompanied Children at our Borders: Can Museums Help?

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

Immigrant Boy: photo from CBS News

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

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

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

Are there Risks?

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Exploring the Future of Museums with Learning Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Building the future of education: what comes next?

Many thanks to all of you who have sent feedback and expressed support for CFM’s recent report “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem.” Please accept my apologies if I am not able to respond in depth to all of your communications right now, but be assured I am logging your emails and compiling lists in people (and museums) interested in being engaged in some way in building the “vibrant learning grid” of the future.

Here at the Alliance, I’m helping us figure out how we can help make this vision of a “preferred future” real. I am sure you face similar dilemmas in your work: Out of the many good things you could do, which would have a lasting effect on the world? Where can you best spend your time, funds and influence to actually change the world? I feel this acutely, when it comes to museums and education, because it is clearly possible to pour huge resources into improving American K-12 education, and not significantly move the bar. If you need evidence of that, total up the dollars being spent on education reform--charter schools, common core, new standardized tests etc.—$44 billion in federal stimulus funds alone, and by one estimate at least $4 billion in private philanthropy. Contrast this amount with the country’s dissatisfaction with the performance of our children as measured by standardized testing, college preparedness and employment (if you even grant the premise that these are valid measures of success).

Studying the forecasting work done by KnowledgeWorks, the Institute for the Future, and mainstream educational reformers has convinced me that the changes we need to make in K-12 education are transformative, not incremental. Even if we find the magic fix that makes the current system work perfectly—raises testing scores, increases graduation rates, enables more kids to matriculate into college—we would not be equipping learners to succeed in the future world. This is the message of organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills: Everything from how our children learn to what they need to learn impels us to reconsider education from the ground up. Our current educational system doesn’t just need a tune up, it needs a new engine. (Or a new form of transportation—perhaps the educational equivalent of jet packs or teleportation.)

When I share these thoughts with folks, as we discuss the “future of education” report, the most frequent question I get is “if the future needs to be so very different from present, how do we get there?” Even if we want to create a “vibrant learning grid” what is the first step along the path to that future? That’s exactly what I am trying to map out, for the Alliance and for museums, and as I do so here are some of issues I wrestle with:

Timeframe. How long will it take to create the next educational era? Future studies teaches us that elements of whatever will become the new mainstream exist now, even if we don’t know which innovations and experiments will become the next dominant paradigm. But how long before that new paradigm becomes the norm, the mainstream? I’m sure five years is too short a time period to affect this transition. And despite the fact that KnowledgeWorks frames its forecasts 10 years out, I personally think ten years is too short a time frame, too. (Your call as to whether that makes me a pessimist or a realist.) My instinct is that we will experience a 25 to 50 year incubation period for the new learning landscape, a forecast which, if correct, poses its own challenges. How do you inspire people to work for transformation that won’t flower in their lifetime, or at least not in time to benefit their children? How do you help organizations plot the first few steps in such a long journey, with confidence that those steps will take them down the right path?

Method of migration. When it comes to educational transformation, I see two potential paths which (per my training as a biologist) I think of gradualism v. saltatory evolution. The gradualist path would build through selection and amplification of successful mutations in the current system. Charter schools might slowly increase proportional to traditional public schools. Longer school days and school years might become the norm. As these changes ripple through the system, they reach all students sooner than others, but everyone is progressing towards the new evolutionary state. But (in line with what I note above) gradualism is in fact likely to result in incremental (and therefore insufficient) change. I think it far more likely that the kind of transformative change we need in education (resulting in a system in which groups of learners are united by skill level or learning style, characterized by passion- and inquiry-based learning, drawing on learning resources throughout the community, encouraging kids to engage in real and meaningful work) will occur via the rapid evolution, in small populations, of new, more useful and desirable learning systems. (Being a fan of Stephen J. Gould, I might as well call this the punctuated equilibrium model of educational reform.) As well-off, well-educated, or simply savvy and tenacious parents migrate their offspring to these new, better options, the failure of the old system accelerates as it struggles to serve the students that were, on average, disadvantaged to begin with. The old system fades away, and the best of the new systems expand to fill the gaps. (Think of the last of the dinosaurs lumbering about, while proto-mammals speciate at their feet.)

Combine these forecasts of a long time frame with saltatory change and you have a grim scenario in which many children fall through the gaps, growing up in a system that does not serve their needs, disadvantaged for life both socially and economically and not only suffer these results personally, but drag down the economy as a whole as well. As attractive educational alternatives like the Incubator School (see video, below) remove the barriers that hold back talented, driven kids (and fosters teenage entrepreneurs) the gap between the educationally and economically advantaged and disadvantaged will become even wider.

Do we face a near-term future in which some teens found their own companies, or make Bitcoin fortunes (or both), while others fail to graduate high school, or nominally graduate high school or even college with minimal literacy and no employable skills?

I think the best path we as a country can take to navigate between the extremes (rapid change, many students left behind; gradual change with the majority of students insufficiently-served for the foreseeable future) is to shorten the time frame of change by providing as many high quality educational alternatives as possible and creating policies that encourage people to make full use of these alternatives, while doing what we can to improve the experience of the children who, for now, remain in the traditional schools. So, for example, museums can:
  • Provide more and better support to homeschooled and unschooled learners;
  • Develop robust, high-quality after school and summer programs;
  • Create their own schools structured around experiential, immersive, project-based learning;
  • Designate staff “learning agents” to help K-12 learners, and their parents, create personalized learning plans around museum resources.
  • Identify and partner with innovative schools founded on the same principles of self-directed, passion-based learning that informs our design. (For example, the new Math Academy opening in San Francisco this Fall.)

As I translate these thoughts into actions the Alliance can take, both on the part of our staff and together with our members, here are some steps I envision. We can:
  • Document what museums do now, both to identify educational innovations on which to build, and to establish a baseline measure of museums’ current educational impact. (This might include, for example, case studies as well as quantitative research to determine how many hours of teacher training museums provide, how many home-schooled learners use us as primary resources, how many students are educated in museum-based schools.)
  • Create inspiring, ambitious but achievable goals for the educational reach of museums, as individual organizations and as a field.
  • Advocate for policy and funding that enable museums to participate as fully as possible in the educational mainstream, and support innovation and experimentation
  • Encourage funders to support the building the infrastructure (of all sorts: digital, transportation-related, physical facilities) that museums will need if we are to play a significant role in education

Of course, when I say I am thinking how to use our resources, I mean your resources—the Alliance’s charge is to make wise use of the support given to us by our members and by the field. I hope, by sharing my thoughts early in the process, to start a conversation with you about what the Alliance can do to advance the role of museums in US education. So weigh in—below in comments, where your colleagues can build on your thoughts, or via email.