Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Exhibit A

I'm taking advantage of the late summer lull in blogging to share my personal favorite from last spring's Future Fiction Challenge, a story submitted by Ken Eklund. It nails so many of the things that make for compelling future fiction: showing (rather than telling) the backstory to this world; presenting believable, compelling characters; building on trends we can see at work in the world today and provoking us to think about what we might do to avoid the worst consequences of this path.

You may know Ken as the Writerguy, creator of "authentic fictions and transformative play for social good." Perhaps you played World Without Oil, the massive multi-player online alternate reality game he co-produced with Jane McGonigal and other gaming greats in 2007, or FutureCoast, his gameful exploration of climate change in 2014. In "Exhibit A," Ken explores an educational future riven by a deep digital (and cultural) divide, and one museum staffer's decision to bridge the growing chasm with a work of provocative, collaborative pedagogy. 

My agent: Trey is inbound.

Me, out loud: “Do her friends know?”

My agent nodded. I’ll clear the south gallery. I cameraed over to it: only three people there, and as I watched, they got up and headed for the east gallery, prompted by their electronic agents. The exhibits folded back into the walls.

“Any trouble?” I asked. Sometimes people resent the youth priority.

Shrug from my agent. (Does your agent do this? Feign ineptitude at reading the emotions of other agents?) I put him back into my pocket.

I was asking because Trey would probably be the only A-Youth there. Strictly speaking, I could get demerited for clearing a gallery and inconveniencing three A-patrons for one
A-Youth; young people’s privilege doesn’t extend that far. The other half-dozen kids, the ones coming to meet Trey, aren’t agented. To me, and to many patrons, that wouldn’t matter, but… there had been trouble last time. A kerfluffle.

My agent pulled up aug-real locators for Trey and her friends; I watched them approach the museum while he monitored the museum from my pocket. When the locators showed the first B-Youths nearing the front doors, I moved on down to intercept.

Mahial and Rezat I remembered from last time, but Baz was new. Without agents to prompt them, they had to rely on physical cues, so I gave them a big smile. “Right this way! I have the south workspace reserved for you.”

The friends were all there, seven of them (and the room’s sound dampeners were inching up to max) when Trey huffed in, pulling a lumpy sack behind her on her vintage red segwagon. She greeted and was greeted at the top of everyone’s lungs except mine. And then they fell upon Trey’s bag like bandits, which in a way, they were.

Trey had raided the recycle hoppers of her family’s print-all (I’m guessing) and maybe those of a few neighbors. The group tore into the goods. Baz had taken today’s project out of his sidepack – a first-decade deskbot it looked like, but now it had plants growing out of it. Weird plants. He and Mahial pried the back open and bonked heads peering in; much pretween hilarity ensued.

I took my leave and went back to work – we were negotiating the premiere of a first- order remix of a Met show – so it was maybe an hour later that the Met’s art director said the magic words of closing (“our agents will work out the details”) and I could offscreen back to things in-house.

My agent informed me immediately: Trey deactivated her agent.
Whaaaat. She hasn’t moved, my agent said, anticipating my concern. But her agent doesn’t respond.

I’m going down there, I replied.

Fortunately the B-kids were clustered around the maker and Baz’s bot, with Trey off to the side; I hate to be The Authority Interrupting Everyone’s Fun.

“I didn’t turn it off!” Trey was seven-years-old indignant. “I just let my agent go to sleep. It never gets to dream, except here it can.”

Okay, so one: kids’ agents protect them, so kids can’t turn them off. Supposedly. Two: agents don’t sleep? And three: they certainly don’t dream? Supposedly…
“And also,” she lowered her voice, “they don’t have agents,” meaning the other kids. “So, you know…”

Will you wake it up before you leave? my agent suggested. “Will you wake it up before you leave?” I asked Trey.

She looked at me. “It wakes itself up.”

“Of course,” I said, thinking, this kid knows agents better than my agent does. I let the truth of that sink in for a moment. The matter being successfully resolved, Trey raced over to join the others at the maker, where something was beginning to emerge. A cry of chagrin soon went up: it wasn’t right, whatever it was. Rezat stuffed it back into the hopper to be recycled.
Then two people barreled in: a man, in his thirties, and a silver-haired woman, possibly his mother. A-adults. The man headed for me, and my agent began to announce him, but I had eyes only for the woman.

She headed for the deskbot. “Can I see this?” she asked the kids.

“Sure,” said Trey. Baz ran to put the bot into the woman’s hands. “But you have to turn off your agent, if you want to help.”

The woman’s face lit up. “I certainly want to help,” she said. “You know I had one of these, back before,” gesturing at the deskbot. “I loved that thing. –Agent, off.”

I looked over at the man standing next to me; he was laughing, and I did too. “I wanted to ask you if my mother could join,” the man said.

“Decision’s out of our hands, looks like,” I said.

“She saw the bot through the window.”

“You certainly don’t see any of those anymore.”

“Not in A-land,” the man agreed. “But plenty still doin’ for the B’s.”

He’s a teacher, prompted my agent. Grove High School. First name is Xan.

Xan’s mother was showing the kids how the deskbot moved when it was alive. This was giving them ideas.

“We don’t see many kids from Grove here in the museum, Xan,” I said. Only B-kids had teachers anymore, or went to school.

He too was watching his mother. “It’s your A-only days,” he replied. “Wish I could change that,” I said. “We fought that law.”

“It’s a matter of principle with my kids.” “I can appreciate that,” I said.

Baz was showing Xan’s mother how the deskbot watered itself. “What I don’t have,” I said, “is agents I could loan them.”

“I have those,” he said. “That’s not the problem. They won’t use loaners. They perceive them as badges conferring second-class citizen status.”

I nodded. He went on, “Which is a big problem. Because they should learn to use agents. And many of them want to. Just not in a classroom.”

Now Baz, Mahiel and Tamara were calling up reference works on the wall, showing Xan’s mother the look they were trying to achieve.

“My agent will correct me if I am wrong,” I said slowly, thinking this through, “but I believe the law says ‘A-only days’ are reserved for people with agents.”

“Yes, so?”

“It doesn’t say the agents have to be turned on. –Agent?”

I am researching this, my agent said.

“That might work,” Xan said slowly. “To come here with an agent, but turned off. They might find that to be an eloquent expression of defiance.”

“I think they’d find support, too,” I said. “Many A’s would turn off in solidarity.” “You think so?”
“Yes, I do,” I said. Let your agent sleep. Let your agent dream, I thought. “If only for the novelty of it.”

Seven of the eight gathered again around the maker, which started working hard at something. Little Eban stayed behind with the deskbot, improvising a smooth little spin- dance routine for it as images of ballet flickered on the table underneath.

“They won’t be accredited, though, will they,” I asked. “Your kids. For agent training. Even if they happen to activate their agents from time to time.”

“Which they most certainly will. No, they won’t get credit, but that hardly matters. Who looks at accreditation? Nobody. They give you an agent and it’s obvious in five minutes how good you are with it.”

“They just ask the agent,” I agreed.

Xan went on, “I’ve always thought it’s perfect for self-directed learning. The agent itself tutors you.”

“A-kids get the luxury of having a tutor with them wherever they go,” I said. “But that brings its own issues. Although Trey seems to do okay.” I pointed her out.

“Ah, the quiet one,” Xan said.

“Yes,” I said. “That can be one of the issues.”

Xan was thinking. “With agents, Grove kids would get youth priority, right? –Oh my. Probably cause you a LOT of headache.”

“Having headache-free days is notably not in our charter.”

Xan turned and offered his hand. “It’s done, then? Our very own provocative collaborative pedagogical performance work?”

I took his hand and shook it. “Working title: ‘Exhibit A’. Tell your kids, back at the school. Our agents will work out the details.”


You can read more stories from the Challenge over on CFM's Vibrant Learning site, which is now being cared for by Sage Morgan-Hubbard, our Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums & P-12 Education. And if you regret not entering the Challenge the first time around, stay tuned--Sage has some ideas in the works for more opportunities to contribute your visions of the future in creative forms. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Futurist Friday: Curating the Hereafter

I have a special place in my heart for museums that help their audiences explore the future.

The latest addition to my collection: the Hereafter Institute, a fictitious company created by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, recipient of a 201 LACMA Art + Technology grant.

Working in collaboration with theater director Benita de Wit, Barcia-Colombo envisions the Hereafter Institute as "part funeral home, part tech company." The resulting provocation challenges us to think about our legacy in a digital age. What will happen to your data when you die? How will the masses of data you create during your life change the way you are memorialized? 

The Hereafter Institute: An Invitation from Gabriel Barcia-Colombo on Vimeo.

As reported in the LAist, the exhibit will include virtual reality simulations that enable you to spend time with a virtual reality recreation of Barcia-Colombo's grandfather; wearable tech loaded with memories; and the digital equivalent of cremation urns, filled with the deceased's digital remains.

The fictional Hereafter Institute is offering a limited number of real individual consultations--and there already is a waiting list. If you snag a consult, let me know! I will invite you to write about it for the Blog. 

Meanwhile, readers, read the article, watch the video, and think about how digital data will change the way museums remember and interpret the dead, and whether it shapes how you want to be remembered. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Museums and the Future of Work: A Call for Collaboration

Hi, Nicole here. In today's short post, I'm sharing some exciting news—and making a call for your collaboration!

This spring, CFM will be holding a national convening on museums and the future of work. The two-day event builds on the issues highlighted during the Museums and Labor Demo at the 2016 AAM Annual Meeting, and will be a capstone to the final year of my term as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AAM. 

From Raconteur's Future of Work report

The convening will bring together museum professionals, nonprofit leaders, labor organizers, activists, and academics to imagine the future of museum work. Through a series of interactive panels and working groups, attendees will explore questions of wage equity and access.  We will reflect on the forces of change shaping the museum workforce, share experiences, and map ways that we can move forward toward ensuring sustainable futures for our field.

Together, we’ll assess inequities in the museum workforce and strategize toward expanding the pathways to careers in museum leadership.  Some key questions the convening will engage include:

  • How does the changing nature of work impact our field?
  • Where does the future of equity intersect with the future of workplace change?
  • How can we make both the business case and the ethical case for equitable workforces?
  • What scenarios can we build?
  • Can we tell a dystopian future of museum work? What can we learn from that future?
  • What best practices around labor in our field can we highlight?
  • What can we learn from other fields about museums and work?
  • Who works in our field today and how can we broaden our outreach to new communities?

A big part of this project involves helping museums inspire young people—and especially those from marginalized groups—to pursue museum careers. I believe that the future of our field depends on tapping into the talents of communities not traditionally represented in museum leadership.  I’m asking you to join me in making a more equitable future possible.

Planning for the convening is in its early stages, but, in the spirit of experimenting together, I’m extending a call to you for help in building the conversation.  This is important work—and we can’t do it alone. If you or your museum would like to contribute to the thinking and visioning of this project, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re interested in partnering with us, I’d love to know that, too! Please drop me a line at nivy (at) aam-us (dot) org, or leave your name and a note in the comments section below. 

Image credit: R. Black

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Beyond Neutrality

In Season 2 Episode 2 of the Museum People podcast, New England Museums Association director Dan Yaeger argues that all museums should be social activists, describing the oft-voiced museum ambition of being "places to convene discussions" as "weak tea." In today's guest post, Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation describes how the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia moved from neutrality to taking a position on criminal justice reformSean writes on prison museums at prison-museum-odyssey.tumblr.com. 

Here at Eastern State Penitentiary we are rewriting our mission statement to remove the word “neutral.”

We believe that the bedrock value that many of us brought into this field—that museums should strive for neutrality—has held us back more than it has helped us. Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. At Eastern State, more often than not, the word provided us an excuse for simply avoiding thorny issues of race, poverty and policy that we weren’t ready to address.

Most visitors to Eastern State are white. Most are middle class, and most are tourists to Philadelphia. Ten years ago I would have argued that leisure travelers don’t want to explore the complex and troubling root causes of mass incarceration. At the time we did commission artists to explore these issues at the physical edges of our property, but our tours and historic exhibits focused squarely on the past. Nobody complained.

In some small ways I was probably right. Bipartisan support for criminal justice reform has grown dramatically in recent years. Ten years ago our staff was tiny, our resources modest, and our board of directors in transition. Perhaps we weren’t ready.

But mostly I was wrong. Development of our first Interpretive Plan in 2009 forced us to look more critically at our choices. Looking at a map of programming around the site, I had to conclude that our version of “neutrality” was mostly taking the form of silence. As a coworker said at the time, “Oh, we talk about race and the US criminal justice system every day…our silence tells visitors exactly what we think about it.”

I thought neutrality would create a safe space for visitors, but it was becoming clear that this space wasn’t safe for Americans who have experienced mass incarceration up close, within their communities.

We have tried to shift our focus to effectiveness and inclusion. We have found that many leisure travelers really will engage with these difficult subjects, but core elements of museum craft become more important than ever. Experiences need to be social, multi-generational, interactive and accessible to visitors who don’t typically learn by reading alone. They need to genuinely value the wide perspectives and personal experiences of the visitors themselves.

In 2014 we built The Big Graph, a 16 foot tall, 3,500 pound infographic sculpture that:
  • represents the massive per capita growth of the US prison population over the last 40 years;
  • compares the US Rate of Incarceration to every other nation on earth (we are highest by an enormous margin),
  • divides nations into those that practice capital punishment and those that do not;
  • tracks the consistent and disturbing racial disparity in our prison population over time.
Every visitor encounters The Big Graph. It concludes the main audio tour and is incorporated into every school tour. The text on signage is direct and blunt. The audio tour asks “So why does the U.S. need to imprison so many people?”  To our surprise, visitors consistently report that The Big Graph feels “neutral.”

In developing the companion exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration we faced a crossroad. We had dipped a toe into the pool of honesty about our perspectives, but we had maintained the illusion of neutrality. The new exhibit was shaping up to be a deep dive into issues of policy, race, enforcement and outcomes. Were we really going to say “on the one hand….?” It felt patronizing.

There are too many Americans in prison. Our staff knows it, our advisors know it, our Board knows it. And so we eventually united around a statement: “MASS INCARCERATION ISN’T WORKING.”  That phrase opens the exhibit in 400 point block letters.

Exhibits, tours and public programming at Eastern State have moved
away from a central focus on neutrality.  The new exhibit "Prisons Today"
(pictured) opens with the statement "MASS INCARCERATION ISN'T WORKING."
Today formerly incarcerated people sit on Eastern State's Board of
Directors and are employed as tour guides.  Photo: Darryl Moran.
Nearby a seven-screen video tracks the political rhetoric that has driven criminal justice policy since the 1960s. The video ends with admissions of humility and compassion from a set of current political leaders, stressing voices from the political right such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. At a later point in the exhibit, visitors are forced to walk through one of two corridors, based on their willingness to admit if they’ve ever broken the law. Admitted lawbreakers are confronted with artist Troy Richards’ installation, asking if they see themselves as “criminals.”  He invites these visitors to leave written confessions. He also mixes visitor confessions with confessions from men in and women living in prison. Visitors try to guess which is which. They can’t.

If there’s a message to this exhibit, aside from the failure of our criminal justice system to justify the scale of its growth, it’s a call to empathy. Exhibit cases contain objects on loan from members of our tour staff who have been recently incarcerated. A beautiful and troubling film by Gabriela Bulisova tells the stories of six men and women impacted by the criminal justice system. A reading table includes “The Night My Dad Went to Jail” (written for children 5 – 8 years old).  Visitors are invited to “Send a Postcard to Your Future Self,” using a digital kiosk to create personalized electronic postcards that will arrive in two months, one year and three years. The postcards remind visitors of what they were thinking during their visit, and recommend ways that they can influence our nation’s rapidly changing criminal justice policies based on their responses to the exhibit content.

The journey to create this programming has changed our organization. Our Board of Directors now includes a scholar who studies race and incarceration and teaches inside prisons. It also includes a reentry professional who was himself incarcerated for seven years. [Full disclosure: like many museums, we lack still appropriate racial diversity on our management team; we know have work there to do.] 

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, was the model for more than
300 prisons worldwide.  It closed in 1971, after 142 years of consecutive use.
It opened as an historic site in 1995.  Photo: Darryl Moran
Our visitors—about 220,000 last year—aren’t expecting this programming when they arrive. Most want to see Al Capone’s cell or the site of the doomed 1945 “Willie Sutton” escape tunnel. I’ve grown to think that makes them the perfect audience to engage. Exit surveys conducted after The Big Graph’s completion reflect only 4% saying that the inclusion of contemporary content detracted from their visit. A full 91% of visitors reported learning something thought-provoking about today’s criminal justice system. The Prisons Today exhibit has only been open a few months, and summative evaluation isn’t yet complete. Press coverage and social media comments are encouraging.

Our audience has grown by more than 20% since we began addressing these complex and troubling aspects of American life. I once feared these subjects would suppress our attendance. I feared they would divide our Board of Directors and scare potential funders. I feared they’d harm staff morale, including my own. And I thought neutrality, whatever that meant, had to guide all of our programming decisions. I was wrong on every front.

Now I wonder what other misguided beliefs we’re leaving unexamined.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday Musing: Electoral futures

In today's brief musing I want to draw your attention to a piece by Philip Kennicott in yesterday's Washington Post.

In "Would Donald Trump make art great again?" Kennicott pens a short scenario of what the arts might be like under a Trump presidency. Given that candidate Trump hasn't made any specific policy pronouncements about the arts, Kennicott's sketch focuses on how public attitudes might be affected by the kinds of statements Trump has made, and his general attitude about civic discourse.

Some of the developments Kennicott envisions in this future include:

  • Vandals targeting a gallery showing art that satirizes the new president
  • Threats to federal funding of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art
  • Cultural leaders self-censoring exhibits and performances that might provoke Trump supporters
  • A growing gap between "preservationists" who advocate hunkering down to defend arts funding until the next election and "purists" who argue that arts leaders have an obligation to resist the "new authoritarianism."

Give it a read. What elements of this scenario do you find plausible? Implausible? What do you think the arts would be like under a Clinton presidency? While there are only 77 days until the election, a little future thought might help you prepare your organization for the outcome. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Futurist Friday: Building the Future By Understanding the Past

We know we don't know what the future will be. We can deal with that--that's what strategic foresight is for.

Far more corrosive is the misconception that we do know the past.

In fact, the past and the future are mirror images: the farther we travel through time in either direction, forward or back,  the less certain we are of what did or will occur.  And any effort to build a better future has to be grounded in an accurate understanding of history.

For example, to build a better future of justice and rehabilitation we need to understand how the current demographics of incarceration in the US are a product of our history of slavery and racial oppression. 

Can museums help prime this civic conversation about justice? Yes, and here's one example: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration--a museum and memorial slated to open in Montgomery Alabama in 2017. The Equal Justice Initiative, which is designing and funding the new museum, says it will "connect the history of racial inequality with contemporary issues of mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and police violence.”" 

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch this video, which previews how the memorial will embody the history of racially motivated lynchings in the US, a piece of history largely omitted or underplayed in dominant narratives of the past.

This design is powerful in so many ways, but what I like best is the quiet and powerful call to action: a challenge for counties in which lynchings took place to step up and reclaim their own histories, taking their memorial columns from this central site and bring them home.

And here's a question for your consideration: what "hidden histories" in your country, state, city or neighborhood need to be brought into the light before healing in the present can begin?