Thursday, September 18, 2008

WMA 2008: Live-Blogging Paul Doherty of the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is one of the first museums in Second Life to have simultaneous events in real and Second life. They also have "ride-able" exhibits in Second Life. Of course despite the fact that it is "virtual," you still can actually get motion sick.

One of the big questions: even though there are controls you can exercise if you own your own space in Second Life, however, does that require a 24 hour presence moderating? Is it okay to let go and see what happens without controls or moderation? Where should the boundaries be--between taking a hands-off approach and letting people interact with your space as they will and structuring their experiences in order to ensure consistency and maintenance of the image that your museum has worked to establish?

(It goes without saying that virtual worlds offer many opportunities for growth in the legal profession...)

WMA 2008: Live-Blogging Jeff Clark of the Rasmuson Foundation

As with all aspects of marketing and programming, and one of the keys to a good branding strategy, when creating a presence in Second Life, you *must* integrate and coordinate it with your "real life" presence. One of the values of using Second Life as an extension of real world working life is "meeting people where they are."

"Second Life is an incubator of creativity encouraging new levels of social networking and interaction."

The Rasmuson Foundation Gallery of Alaskan Artists is definitely a front-runner/early adapter with a beautiful space in Second Life that is well integrated with their mission and their website and their physical presence.

WMA 2008: Alternative Spaces for Programs and Marketing in Second Life

"If you are offended by flying genitalia, you probably should leave the room."

[EDIT: I should have mentioned (and I do apologize) that our intrepid guide through this virtual space--and the source of that memorable quote--was Springs Coronet, aka Melissa Rosengard, Museum Consultant (and serious advocate) and former Executive Director of the Western Museums Association.]

All giggling aside, MMOGs are now becoming so well-recognized and acknowledged that AAM is now in the process of developing their own MMOG through the Center for the Future of Museums in conjunction with the Institute for the Future. The game will be "Superstruct." Email by Sept 22, 2008 in order to join Oct. 6, 2008.

Perhaps one reason why museums are becoming interested in virtual reality MMOGs--or should be--is that content creation allows for economy to develop. Virtual fundraising is even more in its nascency than the virtual worlds themselves, but even so philanthropists, foundations and economists have been expressing an interest in the philanthropic value of virtual worlds for at least a couple of years.

There actually two overlapping economies: the real economy in which the game designers make money and then the economies within the games. There is a $15 billion annual goods market.

eMarketer predicts the number of teen Internet users visiting virtual worlds will jump to 20 million in 2011.

Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Verizon are all conducting job fairs and interviews in Second Life. For-profit and nonprofit organizations are holding meetings in Second Life (often on "Conference Island"). Classes are held in Second Life. This is why it is important to maintain boundaries and retain a certain degree of professionalism--unless you have an "alt" avatar as well (that cannot be traced back to you).

Perhaps one of the most interesting uses for museum purposes is illustrated by the Van Gogh Museum in Second Life, which is not affiliated with the real life Van Gogh Museum, where you can actually enter the paintings and explore those spaces.

The social value of these alternative realities have given rise to whole new research disciplines and research specialists, including ludologists and narratologists. What's more, these realities are a valuable outlet for those with disabilities, for example providing the opportunity for a wheelchair-bound man to dance with his wife.

Although there are many, many MMOGs in existence, many have already folded and many, many more will in the future. Eventually these worlds/games will consolidate until a few have risen to the top.

The data is not great right now, but there are currently 30-60 million active MMOG users (this includes 10 million in WoW and 15 million in Second Life). These numbers are all little tricky to decipher because there are some users who play everyday and others who login once a year, however, these numbers are all for people who are actively engaged in the MMOGs. On average, there are 42,000 people logging in to Second Life at any given point in time.

Who's in Second Life?
Harvard Law School
Mormon Church
H&R Block
Ben and Jerry's
Amnesty Int'l
Illinois Alliance Library System
Major League Baseball
Rasmuson Foundation of Alaskan Artists
State Library of Kansas

What's in the future? Multiverse Places makes use of FaceBook and strives towards interoperability.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

AAM Conference Session: Expanding the Hive

While the panelists of "Expanding the Hive: Blogs as Engines of Community Formation"--including blogger extraordinaire Shelley Bernstein from the Brooklyn Museum--all agreed that blogging was a viable tool for community building, they had some important distinctions to make between blogs that will succeed at this function and blogs that will not. Perhaps the most crucial distinction centers around the manner of communication used in a blog--is it a uni-directional monologue or is it an inclusive dialogue? The point of the panelists was that dialogue blogging was more likely to inspire comments, resulting in community formation. Blogs should not be newsletters. If you do re-purpose news and press releases for your blog, be sure to personalize the item so that it will be a post that inspires dialogue rather than just provides information.

What are some of the most comment-inspiring blog posts you have seen? What made them worth commenting on? Do you agree with the panelists that blogs can be useful as community building tools? Is it desirable that blogs be used in this manner?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

AAM 2008 Conference Session: Lobbying in the Lead

"Lobbying in the Lead: New Ideas for Strategic Fundraising" focused heavily on an update on federal earmarks. Currently, earmarks are fairly controversial and there is a movement to declare a moratorium on them, but so far that has not happened and in fact earmarks still seem to be somewhat necessary in order to get appropriations passed. They have, however, been greatly reduced--by about 43%. There are now about 11,600 earmarked projects, or $17.2 billion in earmarks out of $3 trillion budget. Roughly $7 billion of those earmarks are for defense, leaving a little over half of the earmarked funds for everything else. There is $18 million in earmarks in the IMLS budget, down from $40 million.

In a nutshell, what all this means is that while earmarks are still an alternative for funding, they should be seen as supplemental rather than a staple.

The good news is, however, that transparency rules now mean that museums can find out more quickly whether they get their earmarks and see who has sponsored various earmarks.

In addition to earmarks, lobbyists are another alternative for museum fundraising. A couple of key points to remember when engaging a lobbyist are to use your other strategic partnerships and sponsorships to help strengthen your case for lobbying and that lobbyist fees are generally $70,000-$350,000 annually and lobbyists are generally paid on a quarterly basis.

AAM 2008 Conference Session: Corporation and Museum Partnerships

To say that I have been preaching corporate partnerships for museums as a form of revenue generation would be a bit strong, but not too far off the mark. So I was excited to attend the "Corporation and Museum Partnerships: Understanding and Meeting Each Other's Needs" session, which offered these basic, yet important key points for helping museums to understand the needs of corporations.

-- Museums must understand how corporations work in order to successfully ask for support.
-- Museums should be strategic in their requests; demonstrate how their needs fit the needs of the corporations.
-- When competition for money is fierce and the economy is tough, it is crucial to engage in strategic partnerships that will result in strong marketing opportunities. Marketing on the other hand is not considered "tangible value" according to the law.
-- The Sarbanes-Oxley Act mandates (among other things) that public companies be able to demonstrate to shareholders how corporate donations benefit the company's bottom-line.
-- However, corporations recognize that philanthropy does contribute to a healthy economy, thereby contributing to the bottom-line.
-- In the past, corporate sponsorships and donations were considered separate activities, but that seems to be changing.
-- Museums must be willing to adjust the "fixed menu" of benefits available to corporations--they are not interested in more fancy dinners.
-- Offer the corporate name in the name of an event sponsored by the corporation, because unless the name is part of the event itself, the media will often neglect to mention who is sponsoring the event.

AAM 2008 Conference Session: Networks and the Changing Natural History Museum

A question posed to the audience at the "Networks and the Changing Natural History Museum: Expansion or Extinction?" session was truly revealing: all of the grants written by audience members in the past year involved collaboration in some form or another.

This is revealing for two reasons: first, it is consistent with reports that granting agencies are more and more interested in and likely to fund collaborative grants. But second, it is indicative of a shift that the panel was highlighting, that we are now in a "networking economy" in which museums must become hubs in national and international learning networks.

In this regard, the session was very similar in premise to the "Re-Imagining the Museum" session at CAM that I blogged about here and here.

The AAM session pointed specifically at two critical points. The use of the Internet is definitely a part of the shift from individual museum to hub in a vast network, but that the Internet is only a tool rather than a means in and of itself, and that there are other factors that are just important to the shift. In fact, perhaps one of the most integral factors in successfully navigating this transition is a complete re-evaluation and often rewriting of the museum's mission statement.

Both of these points make a lot of sense in terms leading museums into this new "network economy" (my new favorite buzzword--I'll be looking more into this in the near future), described by the panel as "global, intangible and interlinked--in other words, the opposite of museums."

What fascinates and excites me the most about both of these sessions is that they really are describing a huge change in the very nature of what (natural history) museums do and are all about. Fifty years from now, will we even be able to recognize the institutions called museums? Will what we currently conceive of as museums be an historic and obsolete entity relegated to the annals of history? Is anyone else excited about this potential shift?

AAM 2008

Well, the conference may be over, but I am only just now finding the time to settle down and post about the sessions I attended--and, of course, my own session as well. But first, I'd like to point everyone to the official blog of the 2008 AAM annual conference. I have to say, between having an official conference blog, offering handouts via the web and the sheer number of sessions devoted to technology, it is clear that AAM is serious about the "new media" revolution. Kudos!

Lost Hero

Robert Rauschenberg, the visionary, multi-faceted artist known for his assemblages and for always pushing the limits of artistic genres, died yesterday. He has inspired other great artists such as Jasper Johns and composer John Cage--and he is one of my personal favorite artists. The world has suffered a great loss.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Live Blogging from AAM: Recommended Social Media from the "Can and Should Small Museums be Leaders in Technology?" Session

Technologies that the panelists recommend small museums use in order to be leaders in new technology:

Podcasting--Make use of already existing content--podcast your lecture series. Try to use software and hardware that can be used for other things as well, even when the tools are free. Be aware, however, that podcasts take up a fair amount of server space, so you may need to purchase more space.

Blogging--However, blogs are not always well indexed on Google. (Instead they use social tagging and keywords...) As with podcasting, make use of content you already have on hand. Blog your press releases, blog whatever you already have to type up for your museum. There are still issues of transparency and content control with blogs. Is it always appropriate to offer such a free and unmoderated form of discussion? Or do some museums address such controversial subject matter that blogging would be inappropriate? Remember: blogging is not about being a broadcast medium; it is about dialogue and interactivity. Remember, too, that if you don't take part in blogging or photo-sharing and so on, others will do it for you.

Social Networking--George recommends MySpace. The Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas will conduct an experiment similar to the one conducted by the Brooklyn Museum: they will hold an event but post a different time for the event on MySpace to see how many people get their museum information from MySpace. George advises against Facebook because in the past they did not support organizations, however, this has changed. What's more, while MySpace has been the primary social networking site for younger people, this is changing. Just as Friendster fell out of favor, MySpace is now following that same pattern while Facebook is rising and offers philanthropic opportunities. LinkedIn is good for professional networking but not for audience outreach.

Virtual Worlds and SecondLife--I agree with George that SecondLife "isn't there yet" in terms of getting museums up onto the site. Generally only larger museums or people from outside of the museum world have experimented in SecondLife. The Van Gogh museum in Second Life doesn't appear to be affiliated with the actual Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Again, if you don't do it, someone else very may well. The barriers to entry are high and the learning curve steep with SecondLife, but this is really just the first wave of its kind. However, if you want to get involved, contact your local new media department at a university and they can help you.

Photo and Video Sharing--Yahoo! owns Flickr and indexes the photos really quicklymeans that your photos will be found through Yahoo! searches relatively soon after posting them. This makes Flickr a valuable marketing tool, but you must fill in all titles and keywords for each photo. Flickr can be used with mashups as a cost-saving device--you can also use Flickr as your online image database for things like online exhibitions, however, beware of using it as your actual database; these sites will change, or change their terms of use or go out of business and so on.

There is a penalty for not participating in web 2.0--you will become less and less visible in Google and Yahoo! searches if you are not engaged in these ways.

Be aware that if your museum is part of a government, many or all of these social media sites may be blocked, prohibiting the use of these technologies through third-party sites.

And beyond all else, while the technology is fun, be sure to only use strategies and sites that really fit with your mission and vision and make the best, most appropriate use of your assets and resources. Find young people to implement these technologis for you.

Live Blogging from AAM: Can and Should Small Museums be Leaders in Technology?

The question being posed by the panelists at the "Can and Should Small Museums be Leaders in Technology?" session is not whether or not new technologies should be used to connect to new audiences but rather, should small museums blaze the trail, paving the way in use of new technologies.

Arguments in favor of being leaders seem to hinge around the fact that online technologies offer marketing and outreach opportunities for free and because they cannot afford not to pioneer new technologies, despite the fact that the technologies are rapidly changing and today's best solutions may not even be applicable next year.

The moderator has just paraphrased George Laughead's comments as, "If you're not doing this, you're stupid."

Another way to look at it the arguments in favor of leading the way in new technologies is simply put as this: "Why not?"

Sunday, April 27, 2008

AAM 2008

Well, here I am in Denver, CO for the 2008 annual AAM conference where I will be chairing a session on--you guessed it--revenue generation strategies, entitled Leading the Way in Revenue Generation Strategies for Museums.

My co-presenters will be Kua Patten of the Center for Museum Partnerships at the Exploratorium, Kathy Sklar of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian and Stephanie Turnham of the Bell County Museum.

This time around the session presentations will be relatively short so that we can try to better engage the audience and foster discussion but I still will have a brief powerpoint presentation, viewable here.

The session isn't until Wednesday, so in the meantime, there will hopefully be plenty of opportunities for live-blogging from interesting sessions. Be on the lookout for thoughts on sessions and session synopses coming soon!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Happened in Vegas Should be Told All Over the World!

That old marketing slogan, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" goes right out the window once you move away from The Strip and hit some of the museums in town. The Clark County Museum for example (technically located in the suburb of Henderson), presents fun and important stories that should be shared with a larger audience.

The main museum building consists of a timeline exhibit relating the history of Clark County from prehistoric times up until today through the use of dioramas, reconstructed period rooms and immersive areas such as the inside of a mine. Although this is a fairly standard approach to exhibitry for a history museum, there are two elements that really set the Southern Nevada Timeline apart from the rest.

The first are the little touches of humor and irony sometimes thrown in by the Curator of Exhibits--a disarming honesty in the label copy such as the acknowledgment of the use of a particular exhibit technique to elicit a desired response from visitors, or the unexpected placement of an animal or object designed to surprise visitors. The second is the sheer number of antiques devoted to gaming. Seriously, where else will you find ivory-inlaid roulette wheels from the nineteenth century?

But the main building is really only the tip of the iceberg. The real treats lie out on the grounds on the Ghost Town Trail and the Nature Trail and particularly on Heritage Street.

Heritage Street looks like a suburban street off of the Universal Studios backlot tour, with six neat little houses (and one original motor inn cottage) lined up on either side of the street. Wally and the Beaver could have grown up on this street. If they had, it would have been in the P.J. Goumond Heritage House, a 1950s Tudor revival home where a mannequin lounges on the couch in the front room, tie loosened and martini in hand following a hard day's work.

Each of the historic houses on Heritage Street transplanted to the museum from someplace in southern Nevada has been refurbished according to their appropriate time period, bringing to life the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The attention to detail is exhaustive, as is the research on the time periods and the results are utterly transporting.

The Clark County Museum really is a timeless sleeper--I was disappointed by the attendance during my visit. Again, where else will you find a vintage Spartan trailer (made by the company owned by J. Paul Getty) in perfect condition, sitting next to a motor court cabin in this day and age?

But maybe the problem is with the museum's pricing structure. In a town known for glitz, glamor and high rollers, it's not all that surprising that a museum--no matter how amazing--that charges only $1.50 would be ignored.

Monday, April 7, 2008

An Explosive Time off the Strip

The wooden bench beneath me is uncomfortable. I note that there are no seat belts, no guard rails or other protective devices. "How bad can it be then?" I reason with myself.

The walls look like concrete cinder blocks, as if we are in a bunker. In real life, we would have been out in the open in the dry and dusty desert, a vast and empty land that was about to become even dustier by an order of magnitude.

The countdown begins. We don't have the protective sunglasses that we would have worn in real life; again, I ask myself, "Really, how bad can this be?" But I'm nervous just the same. I start to brace myself.

A blinding flash and the bench shakes beneath me as the mushroom cloud appears in the distance on the screen. Smoke rushes at us on the screen and air blasts my face.

I cringe.

It wouldn't have mattered how many times I sat as an observer, I know I would have been terrified each and every time I witnessed an atmospheric atomic detonation. The lesson of the Ground Zero Theater at the Atomic Testing Museum has struck home solidly with me; mission accomplished.

Although a thrilling and effective experience, the Ground Zero Theater is not the only highlight of this remarkable Museum. Through historic news reels, videos and memorabilia, the Atomic Age Gallery draws in visitors—particularly Baby Boomers—as it contextualizes atomic theory and atmospheric atomic testing.

A nearby gallery illustrates how atomic testing was welcomed by the city of Las Vegas as both a tourist attraction and a means to make the burgeoning town seem more "legitimate."

In the Innovators Gallery first-person stories are told from the contractors who ate lunch sitting on bomb casings, to the secretaries and security guards in charge of day-to-day operations at the Nevada Test Site. This adds a wonderful human element to the exhibit, forcing visitors to realize that atomic testing is not just about nuclear physicists in white lab coats.

The museum seems to peter out a bit towards the end, however. A lot of real estate is dedicated to technical explanations about and artifacts from the underground testing that replaced the atmospheric tests. Many people breeze through this gallery. Similarly, the gallery devoted to the various uses of the Nevada Test Site is far less compelling than the nearby Innovators Gallery where personal stories are featured instead.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the experiences of Generation X are virtually ignored. Despite the fact that Gen Xers grew up in the shadow of the bomb when the hands of the Doomsday Clock pointed to two minutes to midnight and the made-for-TV movie, “The Day After” inspired nightmares for months, the museum is clearly designed with Baby Boomers in mind to the exclusion of other demographics. This is problematic both in terms of relevance and marketing to non-Baby Boomers and the museum’s own narrative. The final Today and Tomorrow Gallery feels rushed and tacked on. A piece of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the end of the Cold War—the impetus for atmospheric atomic testing—while a piece of the World Trade Center symbolizes the fact that there are still threats to democracy and American safety, justifying the need for continued testing.

Frankly, though, a far more compelling motivation for continuing nuclear testing can be found in the testimony of one of the scientists from the Innovators Gallery. He believes that there should never be a time when no one can remember from firsthand experience the actual devastating impact of a nuclear explosion.

Hopefully the museum will help to serve as solemn reminder as well.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Getty and Disney

The Getty just may be for museums what Disneyland is for theme parks. That statement is meant neither as an act of heresy nor as a slur but rather it is said with respect and awe. And this isn't about "edutainment" either; it's about the recognition that we live in an experience and transformation-oriented economy and making the most of that fact in order to be effective storytellers.

Think about it: what separates Disneyland from regular amusement parks? Disneyland is about more than just rides and attractions, it's about paying attention to every last little detail in order to create an entire cohesive experience. Well, the Getty does that, too, making it more than just a museum in the sense of being a place where one can go to see art.

The Getty Villa creates an entire environment for visitors to explore and experience, resulting in as cohesive a story as ever could be told be Disney! I was up at the Getty Villa last weekend and the Getty/Disney comparison really struck me when I was in the bathroom. A most ignoble of places to make such a realization, but still, the fact that the Getty had included Italian tiles in the bathrooms with wood doors and trim reminiscent of the rest of the decor throughout the Villa made me realize that there wasn't a single aspect of the Getty Villa experience that did not speak to its setting or the collections.

From the floors to the ceilings to the paint on the walls, every design element was clearly well thought out and intentional. For example, the walls in the Gods and Goddesses gallery are a pale sky blue, emphasizing the divine nature of the images in the room. Next door meanwhile in the Luxury Vessels gallery the walls are marble in a variety of deep, rich colors, heightening the sense of luxury and extravagance.

The Villa itself is a replica of the Villa Papyri, an ancient Roman home situated in the town of Herculaneum and belonging to Julius Caesar's father-in-law. The town and the villa were both buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, so architectural and design elements for the Getty Villa were also borrowed from other ancient Roman homes. Some of these elements include the peristyle with the trompe l'oeil frescoes along the walls, as well as the out-lying gardens where olives, grapes, pomegranates, thyme and other herbs, fruits and plants that would have been found in a proper Roman garden thrive in the Southern California climate.

The menu at the cafe makes use of Mediterranean flavors and themes and an outdoor amphitheater serves the dual role of hearkening back to antiquity while hosting performances and events.

You can even literally immerse yourself in the art, life and times of antiquity in the Family Forum. Here you can decorate a kratyr (with erasable marker) or pose yourself to be an image on an ancient vessel.

During my few hours of strolling through the exhibits and the grounds for a few hours noting how wonderfully every detail worked to recreate antiquity for me, I wandered into the Stories of the Trojan War gallery and noticed a copy of Homer's Iliad lying on a bench. Alone, I sat down and picked up the book, attached to a piece of Plexiglas that read, "Please do not remove from the gallery."

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles...

Surrounded by helmets, statues and other materials that if not actually used during the Trojan War could have been used then, suddenly these words carried a great deal more meaning for me than they ever did when I had to read The Iliad back in college.

Feeling a quiet awe, I tiptoed up the grand staircase to the current special exhibit, The Color of Life. Most people today have come to think of antiquity as being very monochromatic--with the exception of the orange and black vessels, most architecture and statuary is pretty much just white marble. But that was not always the case and with the help of scientific pigment analysis, recreations have been made of some artworks as they would have looked when they were contemporary. What a riot of color! Vivid oranges and bold blues, patterns everywhere and animated eyes instead of the blanks we are so accustomed to seeing.

My reading of the Iliad in the Trojan War room and the Color of Life exhibit both compounded the already-complete experience established for me by the grounds, architecture and design of the Getty Villa. But what made my time at this "transformation" destination even better than a trip to Disneyland was the sense of authenticity. Yes, the Villa itself is a replica but ultimately that is just window dressing, a prop to set the stage for the real stuff--the artifacts that I saw in the exhibits: the gods and goddesses, the Trojan War era armor, the statues of the muses and Herakles, and the vases and statues with minute traces of pigment still visible to the naked eye.

All photos by Allyson Lazar 2008

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums, Maintaining Membership Revenues without a Building

Candace Pendergrass, Director of Membership and Public Information at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science was saddled with a tough question when her museum decided to close the building for renovation and expansion: what to do about the membership program?

Rather than freezing all memberships during construction she decided to keep on with the membership program--but that meant that she needed to find new benefits to membership since members couldn't visit the museum at all during construction, let alone for free. Candace and her team recognized that in order to minimize membership loss during construction they would need to be creative in adding value to memberships, they would need to stay in touch with their members and they would need to create easy ways for members to provide the museum with additional help.

Creating Added Value
Local businesses were approached and if they already had discount programs in place, they were asked if they would apply those discount programs to museum members. This resulted in the Club 1555 Discount Program for museum members.

The museum became a Smithsonian affiliate. This meant that museum members now enjoyed all the benefits of being members of the Smithsonian as well.

The museum engaged in several reciprocal membership agreements through the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), Western Museum Group (WMG) and local area cultural partners. In this way, even though museum members couldn't visit the Fresno Met, they could still visit other museums and cultural attractions for free.

Staying in Touch
In addition to quarterly newsletters and direct mail, the Fresno Met also made use of electronic means to keep in touch with their membership during construction via their website, weekly e-news and MySpace. Currently the Fresno Met has over 200 friends on MySpace.

Help Me Help You
In order to make helping the museum as easy as possible, the Fresno Met started offering a place on the membership renewal forms for an additional contribution. They also signed up on Good Search and Good Shop, Internet sites that donate a percentage of the proceeds from online shopping or searching to the nonprofit of your choice.

Ultimately, through all of these efforts, despite the fact that construction has been ongoing for three years rather than the anticipated one year, membership levels and revenue at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum have barely dropped.

Candace's presentation can be viewed here as a PDF.

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums, The Mother of All Rummage Sales and Hiring out Museum Expertise

Mark Medeiros, Deputy Director of the Oakland Museum of California, inspired the room with his description of the Oakland's annual White Elephant Sale--a garage sale to end all garage sales that attracts buyers from all over the Bay Area, nets in the millions and costs almost nothing to produce. The event is entirely staffed by volunteers and the warehouse where it is held was purchased years ago so there is very little overhead. And every now and then, real treasures get found in and amongst the sale items. Sometimes the Museum itself actually finds items for the collection through the Sale!

Mark also talked about a relatively new division within the museum called Professional Services. This division is essentially a museum consulting and exhibition development firm housed within the museum as both a revenue stream and a form of outreach. Properties such as large office buildings or civil spaces such as port authorities hire the Professional Services team to design and install exhibits or consult on collection and exhibition-related areas.

Monday, March 17, 2008

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums, The Importance of Financial Planning for Museums

Mike Warren, President and CEO of Turtle Bay Exploration Park, drew upon his years as a City Manager to offer these three recommendations for how museums can succeed financially. A PDF of his presentation can be found here.

1. Have a Three-Year (Minimum) Financial Plan.
Nothing is more crucial to the stability and success of a museum than sound financial planning. Too often museums make the mistake of thinking that because they are nonprofits that means that they aren't supposed to make money or focus on finances. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strong museum leaders must be able to read basic financial statements and understand basic accounting principles in order to ensure that the museum is financially sound and has adequate funding to support its mission.

2. Focus on the Endowment.
Revenues brought in through contributions and donations should go into an endowment rather than into a general fund that supports operating costs. This may seem counter-intuitive to a lot of museums, but it is a recommendation based on taking the long-view approach to planning rather than the short-term approach of trying to put out financial fires. A strong endowment will ultimately enable the museum to increase revenue through dividends and interest.

3. Diversify Revenue Streams.
Turtle Bay has a number of sources of revenue, including a variety of annual fundraising events, renting blockbuster traveling exhibitions such as Titanic or Body Worlds and soon they will be developing some of their vast property, most likely adding a hotel or other visitor services-oriented elements.

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums

I'll allow my bias to show for just a moment here and say that I was incredibly excited for my own session. Why? Because of the strength of the topics addressed by the speakers on the panel! In fact, even now, a few weeks post-conference, when I think about what Mike, Mark and Candice had to say, I get excited all over again. I remember when we were still in the planning phases for the conference and the four of us had a conference call how thrilled I felt as, after listening to each other talk about their respective presentations, the unanimous reaction seemed to be a deep interest in what the other presenters would be sharing.

For my part, I introduced the topic (a PDF of my presentation can be found here) by emphasizing the need for alternative forms of revenue generation. According to the 2006 California Museums Study produced by CAM, for that fiscal year, California museums expected a 3.8% decline in revenues despite the fact that museums in general had seen a 38.3% gain in revenues in the previous year. I then briefly described a few of the alternative revenue generation strategies that seemed to be enjoying some success in the nonprofit sector according to both the museum revenue generation survey that Orinda Group performed last summer and the ongoing research we have been doing in looking at alternative revenue streams and more specifically e-philanthropy (a topic I will be speaking on at the 2008 Western Museums Association conference in Anchorage this fall).

The three strategies I focused on were:

-- Partnering
-- Use of Collections
-- Web 2.0/Social Media

As I mentioned in a previous (live-blogging) post from the Re-Imagining the Museum session, Shawn Lum actually described two great examples of partnering and use of collections going on at the Vacaville Museum. Candice from my session had great examples of use of social media, too. But I also had my own examples to strengthen my arguments as well.

Respondents from the 2007 Orinda Group Museum Revenue Generation Survey (pdf) spoke in glowing terms about partnering with corporations to produce DVDs, videos and coffee table books and mentioned things like wonderful DVD sales.

The Boston MFA has already seen great success from its MFA Mobile program, a website that offers downloadable images from the collection for use as cellphone wallpaper. It is a paid service and apparently so far Monet's "Water Lilies" is the most popular download.

But what really astounded me was just how much use of social media has exploded in the museum world in just the past few months. When I was preparing my talk (pdf) on this subject for the Mountain-Plains conference in September, there were 180 museum profiles on Flickr, almost 5000 museum-related groups on Flickr, 100s of museums on MySpace, 1000s of videos tagged "museum" on YouTube and almost 4000 museum-related groups on Yahoo Groups. Facebook was not really much of a factor yet in the museum world.

Now there are over 200 museum profiles on Flickr with almost 7000 museum-related Flickr groups, over 4000 museum-related groups on Yahoo Groups and there are over 500 museum-related groups, over 500 museum-related events, 165 museum pages (organizational profiles) and 11 museum-related applications on Facebook. Museum usage of social media has universally increased in just six months. Wow. I look forward to seeing what the next six months will bring!

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Seven Steps to Reviewing Institutional Health

Museum consultant Gail Anderson discussed organizational life cycles and reminded the audience that museums, just like people, need annual health checks. What are some of the signs of a healthy organization? Transparency, consensus of purpose, good communication, an involved community and a solid bottom line are some of the symptoms of health, but there are others as well. Here were seven steps that Gail recommended for performing an annual health exam for your museum.

1. Bring in an outsider and have the staff make a list of what they consider to be attributes of a healthy museum and then rate from 1-10 where they feel the museum ranks for each of these attributes. Let three or so attributes rise to the top.

2. Track benchmarks in the timeline of the museum's history; patterns will emerge.

3. Step back, take all the staff off-site and ask how everyone felt the museum did in terms of reaching the goals for that year.

4. Learn to say, "No." Make a list of annual tasks and one of special activities and see what can be cut out.

5. Ask questions before considering taking on a new activity.

6. Track time in increments of 15 minutes--see where time is actually spent.

7. Finally, strong leaders are crucial for the health of a museum, but equally important are change-agents from within the ranks. Make sure that the museum has staff members who are willing to take up the banner for new initiatives and foster change and growth. Help these change-agents by giving them the support they need.

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Metrics

Leslie Perovich, Vice President for Marketing at the Discovery Science Center in Orange County spoke about the importance of the effective use of metrics in achieving success in museums. A PDF of her power point presentation can be viewed here.

Metrics are employed in every aspect of the Discovery Science Center--from employee performance to exhibits, the successful use of metrics has helped the museum to increase its operating budget from $2 million five years ago to its present budget of $9 million.

Staff compensation is based on metrics, with bonuses offered every quarter to those staff members meeting or exceeding their goals. Exhibit metrics consist of looking at the number of exhibits that are inoperable more than 5% of the time and less than 95% of the time in order to determine total exhibit availability. The number of and time taken to respond to and resolve all exhibit, computer and facilities requests are tracked.

Absolutely everything is quantified and all the numbers are transparent--all staff members are aware of what the numbers are and where they stand according to the metrics. This fosters a sense of accountability--quite the opposite of that culture of entitlement mentioned by Janice Lyle's friend--and results in everyone striving to do their best, perform at their highest potential and be as efficient as possible at all times.

Imagine That

It comes as little surprise that the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution will be an academician. Lawrence Small, the previous Secretary, held a background in banking, fitting nicely with the trend over the past decade or so of museums moving closer to running according to business principles. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, in fact, it is a move that I personally applaud. However, Small tainted the name of business in the eyes of the museum world through his extravagant spending and compensation. Thanks, Larry, for setting the museum world back a step or two.

But looking at the credentials of G. Wayne Clough, newly appointed Secretary and current President of Georgia Tech University (go Yellow Jackets!), I feel heartened and optimistic for the future of America's Attic. Dr. Clough has both a solid academic background (multiple degrees in civil engineering--a subject near and dear to my own heart since my grandfather was a civil engineer and my father works in that industry as well--and a long professional history of serving as a professor and administrator at top universities around the nation) and administrative and management skills. He has experience serving on national councils such as the President's Council of Science and Technology and the National Science Board. And, given the current state of the Smithsonian and Congress' recent decree that the Smithsonian needed to start raising some of its own money through fundraising, Dr. Clough managed to raise more than $1.6 billion in private gifts during his 14-year tenure at Georgia Tech. Welcome to the museum world, Dr. Clough!

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Combating the Spirit of Mediocrity and Culture of Entitlement

After her friend's declaration that the nonprofit world "tolerates a spirit of mediocrity" and has a "culture of entitlement," former Palm Springs Art Museum Director Janice Lyle wondered if these statements could be true and decided that yes, they were. But if museums want to accomplish anything, they cannot accept mediocrity nor feel entitled and everyone must "step up to the plate." But how then to combat these barriers to success? Janice emphasized the importance of creating priorities and follow-through. Selecting one goal as the sole priority will ensure that the goal is successfully--not just adequately, but successfully--met.

In order to really focus on a sole priority, everyone must be on board and the team must be comprised of dedicated, proactive problem-solvers with a focus on delivery of services to the public. The board must also both be on board and do their part. Many boards are too large and are populated with members who are there for social or prestige reasons rather than to accomplish goals. Demanding a (financial) re-commitment from the board with real consequences for inaction (such as removal from the board) can help to pare down boards to only those members who will serve the team well.

Janice also stressed the benefit for museums using a business model, stating that doing so forces museums to "look at the hard questions." Business analysis is "good and healthy" and critical analysis is crucial to success. Janice encouraged museums to "be bold" and "unflinching" in the face of difficult issues, to "look for the elephant in the room, paint it pink and learn to dance with it." This is how real solutions for real change can be implemented.

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Spirit of Mediocrity and Culture of Entitlement

Consultant and former Palm Springs Art Museum Director Janice Lyle led the session with a comment posed to her by a friend that the nonprofit world "tolerates a spirit of mediocrity" and has a "culture of entitlement." Janice wondered if this was true, but as soon as I heard those words, I knew I was in the right session. The largest single barrier to change, growth and success in the museum world is the organizational culture that stems from this tolerance of mediocrity and culture of entitlement.

I'll digress from the session for a moment to briefly state from where I believe these problems stem. As nonprofits, there is a ubiquitous sense of having to "make do" and "do without" based on the fact that there never seems to be enough money to adequately fund all of the programs, departments and initiatives that a museum would like to be able to fund. In fact, in tougher economic times, hard decisions must be made and as often as not, vital programs are cut or greatly reduced. Because of this, it is almost necessary that museums tolerate mediocrity--almost, but not quite.

Also as nonprofits, museums have been somewhat free from the market demands that for-profit businesses must face. Museums have been privileged to base programming on what they feel the public needs without much accountability and scoffing at the concept of a bottom-line. I use the past tense "have been" because this is no longer really the case, despite the fact that some museums may still be clinging to this sense that they are entitled to determine what the public should see and how visitors should use their museums. Somehow the word "should" often accompanies a sense of entitlement.

But beyond just this sense of museums that they are the holders of knowledge and know what is best for the public, there is also a sense of entitlement in terms of both money and their own existences. The concept of having to justify the existence of an organization in the nonprofit world is a foreign one, whereas in the business world it is simply part of the workday. Museums feel that they deserve governmental and private funds simply because they exist and are museums and in this day and age, that simply is not enough. Many museum practitioners may still balk at the idea, but this session really drove home the importance of recognizing that yes, museums are businesses, too.

Friday, March 7, 2008

CAM 2008 Session: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century, Museums as Nodes

Vanda Vitali, Executive Director of the Auckland Museum, spoke about the importance of museums in the 21st century becoming nodes rather than centers. This idea is central to the strategic and information plans of Naturalis, the natural history museum in Leiden, Netherlands. According to Dirk Houtgraaf of Naturalis, in the past, Naturalis has been "a building with a collection and a network built around it," but in the future, it will be "a network organisation with a building and a collection."

The point that both Vitali and Houtgraaf are making is that museums need to focus less on what goes on within their own walls and more on what society needs from the resources and information that museums have to offer. As part of vast networks of information sharing, museums can do more to fulfill their missions and meet the needs of their communities--and the world--rather than as single, insular, individual institutions.

Similarly, museums in the 21st century should focus on concepts rather than exhibits. Too often exhibits are seen as end-products in themselves, rather than the concepts and information that they convey. If museums focus more on exploring the most effective methods for sharing the information that they hold rather than on how to turn information into exhibits, museums will serve an increasingly vital role in society as a whole.

Vitali and Houtgraaf have collaborated on a recently published book that addresses some of these ideas entitled, Mastering a Museum Plan.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

CAM 2008 Session: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century and Improving Exhibits

Carlos Ortega of BRC Imagination Arts mentioned in his presentation for "Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century" six methods for improving any museum exhibition. Here is my take on his six methods:

1. Emotional Before Intellectual
Museum visitors respond to emotional pleas and resonate more with feelings rather than ideas.

2. Visual Before Verbal
One of the strengths of exhibitions as educational tools is that multiple senses and (not to beat a dead horse) multiple intelligences can be appealed to. If visitors really wanted to do a lot of reading, they could have just stayed home and read a book. Besides, every picture is worth 1,000 words.

3. Tell Less, Intrigue More
This hearkens back to the timeless writing advice: "Tell less, show more." Again, museum exhibitions are not and should not be text books. Besides, what better way to draw in your audience and really make them care than by adding a little mystery, wonder and intrigue?

4. Think Big
This stems from one of the basic principles of brainstorming: start big; you can always get smaller and more focused later, but it's impossible to start small and then grow an idea larger. When dreaming up exhibits--or engaging in any form of brainstorming--let your imagination run wild and do not automatically say "No" to any idea just because it seems too outrageous, impractical or, well, big.

5. People Like People--Use Them
Visitors are more engaged, more attracted to stories about people. After all, personalizing and humanizing ideas and concepts makes them more relevant to the lives and experiences of visitors. So use the story of a particular individual to help relate your exhibit themes.

6. Shorter Attention Spans
It has been said many times: we live in a bite-sized, snack culture. You can blame MTV for this if you like, but at this point it really doesn't matter why people have short attention spans; it's only important to know that they do. If you can't convey what you need to in the first paragraph, your message will be lost. (Yes, I recognize the irony of my typing this with my proclivity for long posts.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Recap of CAM 2008

Last week was the California Association of Museums annual conference. This year it was held in centrally-located Fresno and three members of the Orinda Group executive team were in attendance. The evening events at the Fresno Art Museum and the Downing Planetarium at Fresno State were both well-planned and a lot of fun (not to mention with great food). Sadly, we missed the opening night event at Table Mountain Rancheria; apparently it was phenomenal.

I myself attended five sessions and chaired/presented at a sixth. In subsequent posts I'll speak about each one in turn, but for now I'll just briefly list them:

SESSION 1B: Web 2.0 (Part 1): What’s All the Buzz? Using New Technologies to Educate and Increase Participation
SESSION 2B: Web 2.0 (Part 2): Brainstorming the Possibilities
SESSION 3C: Museum Geeks: The Next Generation
SESSION 5C: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums
SESSION 7C: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century
SESSION 8C: It’s More than Setting the Goal—Methods for Achieving Success

In addition to the sessions I attended, there was also a strong emphasis on how museums can "go green" in all areas of the field, from exhibitions and building to administration. The entire conference itself was "green" from discouraging paper hand-outs and encouraging downloadable hand-outs instead to offering attendees the opportunity to off-set their conference carbon footprint.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Live Blogging from CAM part 6: The Vacaville Project Confirms Alternative Revenue Generation Strategies

Shawn Lum may be speaking about the collaboration between the Vacaville Museum and local theme park Nut Tree in terms of innovative interpretation and exhibition strategies, but the specific steps she is describing also serves as real-life evidence of a couple of the alternative revenue generation strategies I addressed earlier (and can be seen here). Most obviously, the very fact of the collaboration is a great example of a successful museum/corporate parternship. On a smaller scale, there is the use of collections such as the selling of replicas in the gift shop. It's always great to see more examples of these strategies in action.

Live Blogging from CAM part 5: New and Alternative Funding Streams

The 2006 California Museum Study produced by CAM reported that, for that fiscal year, California museums expected to face a 3.8% decline in revenues despite the fact that just in the previous year museums in general throughout the US had enjoyed 38.3% increase in revenues. What's more, according to a 2007 study by the Urban Institute, by 2004 government grants had shrunk to a mere 23.5% of nonprofit revenues. In other words, museums have a desperate need for creative strategies for generating revenue. Today I moderated a session on this topic, "New and Alternative Revenue Streams for Museums." More details on the session will follow in a subsequent post, but for now, here is a link to my presentation, as well as to other related Orinda Group publications.

Live Blogging from CAM part 4: The Curse of Knowledge

What happens when you devote your life to a particular topic or discipline? Eventually you become so involved with that topic, so enmeshed and close to it, that you can no longer effectively communicate the ideas behind your topic to those who don't know about it--lay people. This is referred to as"the curse of knowledge," a concept explored by Dan and Chip Heath in their book, "Made to Stick." What can be done to break the curse when trying to convey exhibit concepts to visitors? Make your exhibition development team interdisciplinary: bring in executives, community members, experts from other academic areas and other professions. Also, never forget to include educational principles and practitioners. Remember: you shouldn't be trying to turn your visitors into PhDs during the course of one 40-minute museum visit.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Live Blogging from CAM part3: Museums as Forums

This may seem obvious and yet it needs to be stated. The purpose of museums has been discussed and debated since the concept of museums first began, but one phrase that often emerges in these discussions is that "museums are forums." Similar to this sentiment is that museums are spaces for focussed social interactions. Well, for goodness' sake, what on earth better way to help museums to actually more fully and completely serve these functions than by enaging in social media that is specifically designed with exactly those purposes in mind? Some of us spend hours and hours trying to explain the relevance and importance of Web 2.0, but really the explanation is simple: if museums are truly to be forums, they must engage in social media.

Live Blogging from CAM part 2: Conference Documentation

Sitting here in the Web 2.0 part I session, most people around me are furiously scribbling on pad and paper; my keystrokes are the only ones to be heard. And yet, the speaker is recording everything via a microphone in his shirt pocket, with the thought of eventually turning excerpts into a podcast. The presentations will be uploaded to the CAM website for download to attendees. And, perhaps most interesting to me, there is one man in the very front who systematically takes photos of each and every PowerPoint slide. The contrast of the multitude of a singular form of documenting the session--pen and paper--with the few examples of a variety of higher tech forms of documentation seems to accurately reflect the current state and approach to technology in museums. Most museums are still using the same lo-tech methods, while a very few are exploring a wide variety of high-tech options. Eventually, the numbers will change a bit as some of the new tech options of today become the standard options of tomorrow.

Live Blogging from CAM part 1: Thoughts on YouTube

I'll try to type quietly--I'm sitting in the first of a two-part session on Web 2.0 at the California Association of Museums annual meeting being held in Fresno. Jim Angus is giving a brief overview of what stratgegies and tools comprise "Web 2.0." As he discusses YouTube and the importance of learning what content exists on YouTube about your museum, Jeremy whispers that the number one video on YouTube that comes up when you search for "museum," is an ad for the video game Halo 3 because the scene from the game takes place in a museum. I think about my impending presentation tomorrow in which I will mention, among other things, that since September, the number of hits for the search term "museum" on Flickr, YouTube and Yahoo Groups have all increased significantly. That's right: just since September.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

BCAM is Born!

Photo by Peggy Archer

Walking through Chris Burden's forest of lamp posts "Urban Light" on Friday night, I felt like I was in a fairy tale. Or like I should be wearing a trench coat and fedora and singing in the rain. It's only a matter of time before someone starts swinging around one (or all) of the street lamps that now welcome visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its newest edition the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Burden's installation is only one of the large and striking pieces that grace the new BP Grand Entrance at LACMA. Approaching the entrance plaza from the other side, visitors are treated to Charles Ray's whimsical giant-sized toy fire truck. That's sure to be another climbing temptation for adults and children alike. And at the center of the plaza is the visitor's first taste of Jeff Koons--his "Tulips."

Meanwhile inside the BCAM there is an entire gallery devoted to Koons' work. In fact, many of the galleries all appear to be devoted to a single artist: Damien Hirst, Robert Therrien, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Robert Rauschenberg to name a few. The new three-story building is chock full of big names and surprising and wonderful artworks but it isn't too crowded; the galleries are wide open spaces with ample room for hoards of visitors to mingle and appreciate each work.

Oddly enough, one of the highlights of the new building for me (and for lots of other people) was the giant elevator! 21 feet wide, 16 feet high, 9 feet deep with a glass front and a custom Barbara Kruger installation, people were lining up just for a chance to ride it!

Richard Serra's maze-like sculptures and Robert Therrien's monumental piece "Under the Table"--consisting of a super-sized table and chairs--also contributed to the off-kilter sense of size, leaving me feeling like I'd slipped down the rabbit hole and eaten some curious cake. Frankly, though, I think that this feeling is absolutely appropriate when visiting a contemporary art museum.

And LACMA and its funders spared no expense for the opening. All last weekend the new BCAM was open for free to the public, following an entire week of members-only events, kicked off by a star-studded gala. The giant tent where once Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs ticket-holders waited their turn for a chance to see the wonders of the boy-king's tomb was transformed into a swank lounge. Live music played, sangria flowed and members munched on gourmet food at the tables or sipped their drinks and chatted in white vinyl booths. Later, some people even danced. The whole scene was 1960s chic.

Between the party and the art, the opening was a huge success. But even once all the cocktail napkins have been cleared away, the exhibits will definitely be a strong draw. The new BCAM will without a doubt be a new major feature of the LA cultural landscape.

For more beautiful images of Chris Burden's "Urban Light," go here.

To learn more about the art and architecture of the new BCAM, go here.

To view an interactive calendar of the events leading up to the grand opening last week, go here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Plea for Permanent Collections

Last night I attended a members-only exhibit opening at a museum here in town. I had been cautioned to arrive early as typically these events result in huge entrance lines around the block. But when I arrived, there were no lines to be seen anywhere, despite the fact that the booze was flowing, the DJ was spinning, there was at least one famous person in attendance and the art itself was phenomenal. What was going on? I'd like to think that the reason for the relatively low attendance was the fact that tonight there will be another big gala museum event catering to a number of the same patrons and trustees, however it would be naive of me to overlook the fact that the opening last night was for an exhibit from the permanent collection.

Arriving early and leaving late, I had the pleasure of wandering the exhibit halls twice--once on my own in a happy art-induced fog, lingering over the pieces that simply made my heart stop and eaves-dropping on conversations about other works I didn't care as much for, hoping to learn why other people loved those pieces. The second time I accompanied a few friends I met up with there, watching to see what caught their eyes and chatting merrily away about the art, the party, the outfits people were wearing and museums in general.

My friends were blown away by both the breadth and the depth of the collection, with frequent exclamations of, "I had know idea they had Diebenkorn/Jasper Johns/Pollack/Rothko/Rauschenberg/Ruscha/Diane Arbus etc.!" At one point, one of my companions finally turned to the rest of us and declared, "Wow, with all these amazing famous pieces, this place must be rich! They sure don't have to worry about money!" I explained that no, that was not necessarily the case at all. Most art in museums is donated rather than purchased--just reading the label copy closely will tell you that. And the cost of caring for such a vast and important collection is fairly steep.

Another friend chimed in, "Is that why they usually have traveling exhibitions from other places? To bring in more money?" Exactly. Traveling blockbusters are sexy. Given the opportunity to catch a fleeting show dedicated to Monet/Warhol/whomever and seeing an exhibition based on a museum's permanent collections, the public will jump at the limited engagement show in a heartbeat. The relatively low numbers last night are living proof of that fact.

The question then arose, "But if the permanent collections are never shown, why bother having them at all?" Sigh. Yes, that's exactly the dilemma, isn't it? Audiences don't value what they perceive as mundane, and what is actually owned by museums is often perceived as mundane in comparison with something exotic from someplace else that is only available for a limited time. The fact that pieces from all sorts of celebrated artists were present in the exhibit didn't seem to matter. Or maybe it would have mattered more had the marketing really played up the magnitude of the collection, perhaps even giving a nod to the sorry reality of the public perception of permanent collection shows: "Yes, it's a permanent collection show, but you know why it's as thrilling or more so than a traveling exhibit? Because we have the goods and we *own* them--and you almost never see them!"

Again, the public perception seems to be that all the best goodies in a museum's holdings are on permanent display and anything dredged up from the basement for a permanent collection show must therefore be dreck. What they don't realize is that a museum is lucky if they have enough gallery space to show off 5% of their entire collection; most can only exhibit 1%! That means that there is an awful lot of good stuff hiding in the back storerooms and I for one think it's great when some of those works get to see the light of day and strut their stuff.

But it's true, as I shared with my fellow attendees, that exactly because of this permanent/traveling debacle that more and more museums--not just science centers--are moving away from collecting and instead are devoting all of their gallery space to traveling shows. I understand the financial reasoning for this change, but I think it is important to remember that there is a reason why museums have been largely collecting institutions, holding in trust items of cultural value for the public. Perhaps rather than abandoning our collections we should instead be finding ways to make them more enticing and exciting for visitors, reminding the public exactly why we are holding these objects in trust in the first place.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Smugglers and Curators and Oprah--Oh My!

Two news items have the museum world a-buzz today: first, the reported sting operation that resulted in simultaneous raids on four Southern California art museums early this morning and second, Oprah Winfrey touching the Ruby Slippers on her show.

The raids took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum, the Pacific Asia Museum and the Mingei International Museum performed by federal and IRS agents armed with warrants. The raids were the "first public move in a five-year investigation of an alleged smuggling pipeline that authorities say funneled looted Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts into local museums." At the root of the pipeline are Robert Olson and LA gallery owner Jonathan Markell. According to the LA Times, the warrants clearly suggest that officials and curators at some of the museums were aware that the objects brought to them by these two men had been looted.

Meanwhile, Oprah fans seem to be as incensed as the museum community if not more so by Oprah's actions on her national television program earlier this week. Despite having been told by National Museum of American History Director Dr. Brent Glass that she could not touch the famous slippers and even going so far as to tell Oprah that he almost never touched the slippers, even with gloves on, Oprah insisted on not just on touching the Dorothy's ruby slippers but grabbed them and waved them around in the air. While comments on the Museum-L listserv (the listserv for the museum profession) have focused on how the Smithsonian could have been better prepared for Oprah's capricious behavior--as well as more generally how museums can better prepare for and protect against mishandling by celebrities and other VIPS--Oprah's fans simply shamed her for her actions, calling her a "spoiled child" and accusing her of thinking she is above normal codes of behavior.

Monday, January 14, 2008

To Be Free or Not To Be Free

Well, in the great age-old debate of whether or not museums should be free, there appear to be two more arguments in favor. According to the New York Times, attendance at "Sweden’s national museums dropped nearly 20 percent last year after they ended their free admissions policy." Meanwhile France will begin experimenting with free admission at 18 national museums in order to attract more young people and foreign visitors.

Make that three votes for free admissions. Although they have had to work to find alternatives to the revenue once generated by admission fees, directors of some of the largest and most notable museums in Britain wrote in favor of their nation's free admission policy enacted a few years ago, stating that

Visits to former charging museums have increased by 87% and have attracted more diverse audiences. An extra 16 million children have visited museums since they were granted free entry in 1998, and the number of visits from people from lower socio-economic groups has risen to 6.5 million in 2004-05.

Of course, in Britain the admissions repeal was accompanied by additional government funding for the museums.

Friday, January 11, 2008

...On the Other Hand...

Perhaps I was hasty in stating that I thought Eli Broad's notion that lending rather than giving would be an effective new model for art donor/museum relationships was a trifle naive. I am reminded of the Museum Loan Network, that works to achieve just exactly that same sort of dynamic--and for roughly the same reasons--at its core, the Museum Loan Network "strives to make objects of cultural heritage more accessible to the public by encouraging collecting institutions to share these works over extended periods of time." So what that means in essence is that if a museum has a decent collection of say, pre-Columbian art, but that it just doesn't have the exhibit space to display and so the collection is languishing in storage, not being used or viewed by anyone, that museum can list this collection on the Museum Loan Network (complete with photos and documentation) for long-term use by another museum. In the past, loans carried out in this manner have even been used to populate "permanent" exhibitions (after all, generally speaking permanent exhibits usually only last between 5 and 20 years).

What's more, although recent changes to the tax code have all but obliterated the practice of fractional giving--the act of donating an artwork a little bit at a time over a period of several years--that form of giving was not all that different from a long-term loan, at least until the artwork was completely and finally 100% the property of the museum. With fractional giving, a museum only owned and controlled the artwork for the percent of time in a year that was equivalent to the percent of the artwork donated. For example, if a patron donated 25% interest in an artwork, the museum controlled that artwork for one quarter of the year. During the other three quarters of the year, the artwork was on loan and the donor held the right to ask for its return for that portion of the year. In this way, a donor could take tax deductions in small chunks over the course of many years rather than in one lump sum in one year.

But in 2006, the Pension Protection Act was signed into law, amending the tax code to heavily curtail fractional gifts, chasing away a lot of would-be donors from seeking that particular form of tax deduction. Which again means that perhaps Eli Broad's model is not only a viable one but one that other art collectors will follow. Since they may not be able to receive a tax deduction the way they want (or need) it through their artworks, why not instead use their collections to establish educational foundations that serve as lending libraries to museums? Except, of course, that the newly proposed Promotion of Artistic Giving Act might change all that...I for one will be very interested to see how this all plays out.

A Surprise and Not a Surprise

Two events occurred this past week in the art world, one that caught me off guard and another that didn't surprise me in the least. Oddly enough, I think for most people, the news affected them in the opposite manners.

The first event was the announcement of the inimitable Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that he would step down from his position by the end of 2008 or whenever a suitable replacement was found.

Mr. de Montebello is 71 and has served as the director of the Met for 30 years. So why then did the news shock me? Well, perhaps in part due to the partial misdirection of a New York Times article from this past July that stated and restated emphatically that Mr. de Montebello had no plans to retire.

But there was something a bit odd in the tone of the article; on the one hand it kept insisting that Mr. de Montebello did not intend to retire, while on the other hand it mentioned that, "if his impending retirement really isn’t on Mr. de Montebello’s mind, it’s on the mind of just about everyone else at the Met, including the trustees and curators, who are powerfully aware that he is the last of a breed" as well as the names of several possible successors. Given this week's news, now I wonder: did the reporter have some secret knowledge as to de Montebello's real plans that he simply wasn't at liberty to divulge? One thing I do know for certain however, regardless of who the next director of the Met will be, Mr. de Montebello will be one tough act to follow.

The second event, the one that I did not find surprising but that has apparently left the art world--and in particular the Los Angeles art scene--reeling is that Eli Broad has announced that he will not donate his collection to any one museum, but rather will keep it in his foundation and lend it out for educational purposes. This news has hit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art particularly hard as they are about to unveil in February the brand new Broad Contemporary Art Museum on their campus. The reason given by Mr. Broad for why he made this decision was that over the past year he has become increasingly aware of the fact that no museum could guarantee that a sizable percentage of his collection would be on view, thereby leaving some in storage out of the public eye. This proposition didn't sit well with Mr. Broad's desire that his collection be available for educational purposes at all times.

Now, given that Mr. Broad gave a substantial amount of money to LACMA to build the new BCAM and that the intent seemed to be that the new museum would be populated by a fair number of pieces from the Broad collection, I suppose it was only natural that LACMA officials assumed that Mr. Broad would donate the pieces--or perhaps the entire collection--to the new museum. But no formal agreement was ever made to that effect and as far as I'm aware, Mr. Broad never even gave any part of his collection as a "promised gift;" his intention was always to lend rather than give. That's why I'm not surprised by this situation.

What's more, a quick trip to the Broad Art Foundation website shows very clearly that Mr. Broad's decision is not a new stance for him:

The Broad Art Foundation operates as an educational and lending resource for contemporary art and is dedicated to building a collection that reflects the scope and diversity of the art of our time...The Broad Art Foundation assists museums striving to present contemporary art in a complex economic and cultural climate. While private collectors can limit the accessibility of contemporary artists' work, the Foundation's collection is available for loan to museums and university galleries through its "lending library" program. [source]

Now, what is a perhaps a little surprising to me is Mr. Broad's statement that he believes that museums should share artworks and that other collectors should follow his "new model" of serving as a lending library rather than giving donations of art. I am inclined to agree with art blogger and curator Marshall Astor when he says that this belief of Broad's is a bit naive. Astor looks at it from a curatorial standpoint:
If this became the norm, I really have trouble seeing a museum curator of contemporary works in say 2030 being able to build a really concise and meaningful permanent exhibit. Identity, that is the identity of the collection, is what makes museums work. Were collectors en masse to follow Broad’s proposed model, the long term development of comprehensive and meaningful collections could become a Sisyphean task.

However, I also think that other collectors would be reluctant to follow Mr. Broad's example because, like it or not, a huge incentive for donating to museums is financial--without a donation, there is no tax deduction.

But the real question still remains: what will LACMA do to populate the new building? Will they display mostly pieces on loan from the Broad Art Foundation, or will they instead start looking elsewhere for other contemporary art collectors willing to donate?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Observations on the Observatory

Photo by Matthew Field.

In November 2006 following four years of renovations, expansion and earthquake retrofitting, the Griffith Observatory re-opened to the public. This past Saturday, I finally braved the still-excited crowds of visitors making their pilgrimages up the hill in Griffith Park and paid a visit to the Observatory.

Despite the throngs, I really did enjoy it. The upstairs galleries are small, heightening the feeling of the crowds, but they are definitely worth taking the time to view, for me especially on the west side of the building in the Hall of the Sky where there are some of the best didactic representations of astronomical answers to common questions such as why do we have tides, how do the seasons work and what is an eclipse? Also in the Hall of the Sky are a coelostat and three solar telescopes, allowing visitors to defy their mothers warnings and look directly at the sun, witnessing sunspots, solar flares and seeing the full spectrum of light emitted by our solar system's star.

Another personal favorite of mine in the Hall of the Sky was the Observatory's depiction of the Periodic Table of Elements--with actual specimens or examples of each element (except for the dangerous radioactive ones, such as plutonium). Pressing a button on the display highlighted the elements found in planets, stars and even ourselves! Imagine my surprise when I learned that tin is one of the major elements that comprise humans...

Downstairs in the Gunther Depths of Space the exhibits are devoted to exploring the unique attributes of each planet in our solar system and the wonders of space in general. Here an interactive display afforded visitors the opportunity to see how asteroids, meteors, comets and other interstellar travelers could impact the landscape of the earth. I regret to inform everyone that I successfully created an asteroid large enough (1000 KM) and dense enough so that even though it was moving at a relatively slow rate, it's approach towards the earth at a 70 degree angle completely obliterated our planet upon impact in the ocean. Other visitors merely left craters with their impacts, and some created meteorites so small and light that they burned up in the earth's atmosphere.

The common element in all of these exhibits that I enjoyed so much was that they, as writing instructors everywhere advise, showed me instead of telling me. That is the beauty of science museums for me, that everyday visitors get to become the scientists: observing, using advanced instrumentation and trying things out to see what happens (they don't always result in complete annihilation).

The Hall of the Eye on the east side of the building also has that potential, with holographic dioramas that tell stories about the development of telescopes and other astronomical viewing devices--I think, but I'm not entirely sure because unfortunately this hall has a fatal flaw; it was absolutely impossible for me to hear anything that was said in the little vignettes. Use of cones of silence or listening hoods or even just earphones would help to make this hall be all that it can be.

My one other concern about the Observatory was that the way-finding was completely incomprehensible. We arrived at the beautiful building (noting as we passed each planetary orbit embedded in the ground, including Pluto) and marched up to the front door only to be confronted with a sign that literally read, "Entrance" but just below that, "Not an Entrance." Huh? We circled the building completely once, seeing all sorts of doors that did not appear to be where we were supposed to enter, but finally ducked into one anyway, only to discover that most people had simply ignored the baffling sign on the front door. Once inside, we had trouble figuring out how to get from the upstairs to the downstairs and back again and ended up going back outside, down and through the cafeteria to find the Gunther Depths of Space.

But way-finding aside, our trip to the Observatory was a fun one and the icing on the proverbial cake was our viewing of "Centered in the Universe" in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Narration was performed live by Observatory staff as the fantastic, brand new Zeiss Universarium Mark IX star projector and two Digistar 3 digital laser projectors transported us from the early days before telescopes to current theories about how the universe moves and functions and through our solar system out to the far reaches of space.