Learning Through the Museum Assessment Program

In this week’s post, I want to highlight one of the most effective museum review processes around –  the American Association of Museum’s (AAM) Museum Assessment Program (MAP).  If you are not affiliated with a museum, the MAP model of mentoring is an ideal for other nonprofits to support their base constituencies.  The MAP process first guides an institution through an intensive period of self-study.  Next, the self-study documentation is assigned to an external peer reviewer, who then visits the institution for an onsite review.  Finally, the reviewer produces a report that is delivered to the institution with recommendations to help guide the museum through its short and long-term tasks for best practices.  Over the past two years at the C.H. Nash Museum, we completed two separate MAP reviews – one that considered our entire institutional operation and a second that focused on our collections.  As a reasonably small museum, we found this process extremely helpful.

Here are our major takeaways from the process:

  • During our weekly meetings for the self-study period, all staff, including our graduate assistants met and discussed specific questions in the MAP review.  The decision to engage the entire staff in the study allowed us to build a solid foundation for both the peer review and the final report.  Through the self-study,I learned a great deal about aspects of our operation that are not part of my day-to-day experience at the museum.  The self-study is structured such that it produces a truly holistic assessment of the museum operation.
  • Both of our MAP final reports produced superb analyses and recommendations for our museum operation.  The recommendations were organized as short, middle, and long-term goals and further ranked by cost to carry out.  The final report also included resources to guide the implementation of the recommendations.
  • Carry the prestige and authority of the AAM, our governing authority and board were very receptive to the final report recommendations.  As a  small institution with perhaps too many pokers in the fire, the MAP process formed a basis for us to strategically reassess our process for the coming years.
  • I also appreciate that the MAP program does not end with the final report.  Both of our AAM reviewers extended an open invitation to remain in dialogue as we work through the report recommendations.

As well, MAP now provides a resource for digital interaction with a newly launched on-line community for MAP participants.  Some of the on-line resources include:

  • a guide for using completed MAP reports to leverage funding for museum projects and needs
  • a set of links for museum best practices
  • a series of webinars on a range of museum practices
  • and a recently launched blog that will hopefully continue to grow

The MAP program is an excellent resource particularly for the small to mid-sized museums that need to step back and take a fresh look at their total operation in general or as a first step toward AAM accreditation.  The MAP process is a very useful tool as we move into the new realities of sustainable, engaged, and socially relevant museum operations.

Have you benefited from a MAP or similar type of experience?

Visit the MAP weblink for more information about applying for the program.

Are Museum Ethics Changing?

One of the student assignments in the Museum Studies graduate seminar I lead each fall semester at the University of Memphis is to provide annotated references each week on the seminar topic.  I enjoy the diverse responses from graduate students in Art History, Earth Science, Anthropology, History and other disciplines.  That diversity allows me to think outside of my worldview as the director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  One of my intents with the assignment is build a database of resources to share on the range of Museum Practices issues.  In the coming weeks, I will occasionally feature selections of those resources on this blog, especially as they relate to public engagement of museums and archaeology.

Early in the seminar we take up the issue of Museum Ethics.  Here are some of those resources:

  • Treatment and Repatriation of Human Remains – Katherine Broome wrote about the website set up by family members and first responders of the September 11, 2001 disaster at the World Trade Center.  The group’s function is to galvanize opposition to the placement of human remains in any memorial museum at the site.  The May 2011 issue of Anthropology Today, has an update by the advisors to the group.  Within the U.S., for the last 25 years museum questions about human remains have principally focused on those of Native Americans as a result of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  Here is a link to an updated scholarly treatment on the impacts of NAGPRA.  Cori Ogleton came across a statement from the Pitt Rivers Museum in the UK about the exhibiting of human remains.  The governing policy of the Museum on the treatment and repatriation of human remains is also available.  A primary difference between the U.S. and U.K. policies is the formal legislation in the U.S. compared to less structured guidelines in the U.K.  As well, the role of the relative or descendent voices of the human remains held in the U.K. seems considerably less in the U.S.  The treatment and repatriation of human remains is a critical issue in public outreach in both archaeology and museums today.  In the U.S., our institutions are now directly accountable to the citizens whose collections they curate.
  • Treatment and Repatriation of Cultural Materials – The Elgin Marbles have long been a touchstone for discussing the repatriation of cultural materials.  That horizon has broadened considerably   Katie Maish found a formal discussion between Malcolm Bell III who notes the loss of context when art is taken from its original setting and James Cuno who promotes the cause of the Universalist Museum approach.  Noteworthy is that only Western Institutions signed the 2002 Declaration of Importance and Value of Universal Museums.  Alex Pearson came across an excellent blog that discusses the generalities and specific instances of looting and museums ethical responsibility.  The repatriation and exhibition of a cultural materials will continue to be a substantive issue that faces archaeologists and museums in their very ability to conduct public outreach.  Does the public’s desire to view prehistoric ceramic vessels override the objections of those descendent voices, also a part of that public, who wish for the objects to be kept from public view?  If the public’s desire to view these objects is considered paramount, why are they for the most part locked away in repositories away from public view?
  • And in General – The American Association of Museums (AAM), the International Council of Museums, the Society for American Archaeology, and most other national organizations make their code of ethics available on-line.  Megan Keener reported an interesting project from the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Association of Museums.  The project invited practitioners from a diversity of museum settings to consider the needs for amending the AAM’s current code of ethics.  The discussion notes that codes need constant updating to address the evolving and dynamic pace of world events.  Here is an example of the project’s discussion.  The Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University also has abundant resources on the subject.

The accountability demanded of archaeologists and museum professionals by the very voices whose materials cultural they curate is rightfully on the rise and will continue to grow.  As well, as archaeologists and museum professionals are employed in nonprofit and publicly financed institutions, in an era of decreasing discretionary dollars, institutions that are unable to explain their relevancy to the public likely will not, and should not, survive.  In this capacity, ethics takes on an increased role.

How has your institution been faced with new ethical considerations?


Museums, Memory & Change

So I have a story to tell about a lesson learned.  Here goes . . .

In last Friday’s Commercial Appeal I saw that the Memphis Symphony Orchestra was going to perform Modest Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition.  This piece of music holds a deep fascination for me.  At the age of 14, Pictures at an Exhibition was the first classical music I ever heard.  Since then, I have listened to the half hour score a couple hundred times, either as the original piano piece or as orchestrated by Ravel.  Pictures at an Exhibition is the most powerful piece of music I have ever heard.   Here is the story of all that.

So when I read about the upcoming performance, my wife Emma and I decided to go.  I had not heard the piece played live by a full symphony in about 30 years.  I was excited about the upcoming performance.  I thought the experience might even supersede the incredible Bob Dylan concert from earlier this summer.

This past Saturday was the Symphony performance.  The show began with several movements from Michael Gandolifi’s The Garden of Cosmic Speculations – a pleasant and surreal experience.  Then there was 25 minutes of violin and orchestra concertos that were relaxing and perfectly executed.  Next was the intermission and then there was Pictures at an Exhibition.

Before beginning the piece, Conductor Mei-Ann Chen introduced Jose Francisco Salgado from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.  Salgado talked about the iMaxesque visual performance that was going to play along with the performance that evening.  The visual was going to contain lots of images of the cosmos, galaxies, and other such things.  I listened in complete disconnect.  What did these celestial images have to do with the piece written in the 1800s by Mussorgsky to commemorate the death of a painter friend?  Or my history with the piece that included traipsing through art museums over the years, from my first experience at Cincinnati Art Museum, or the Art Institute of Chicago where I saw my first Van Gogh, to the my favorite, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis?  or how Pictures at an Exhibition played in my head when walking through the cityscapes of my life travels?   None of my history with the piece were remotely related to cosmic imagery.

The musicality of the live performance on Saturday surpassed my iPod experiences with the piece while mountain biking, or now as I write this, or any other sound system Mussorgsky has played on over the past years.  I kept my eyes closed during the concert, trying to get in touch with my expectations for the piece.  I was distracted by the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the audience fixated on the celestial images that broke the reverence I held for the piece.

I talked with Emma about the experience as we left the concert hall.  She thoroughly enjoyed the visual experience and was not buying my point of view.  She raved about how the visual was linked to pace of the music – how it all flowed together.  But the processing of my reaction hit me over the head like a ton of bricks.  I had my history with the piece.  I now experienced what all the folks who come to museums and want to see what they saw as a kid, or thirty years ago.  My response to the concert was no different from the folks who come to the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa where I am the Director and want to see the staged Native American performance in the reconstructed village they remember from the 1970s.  I thought about a video from The Pinky Show – “We Love Museums . . . Do Museums Love Us Back?”   The cartoon mockumentary of sorts notes that the museum’s job is “To treat each object in the collection like it is frozen in time.  Nothing is allowed to get old and fall apart, which of course is impossible and goes against the laws of nature.”

To quote Pogo “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  I have a new perspective on linking past performance to the present and into the future.  I noted to Emma that had I known in advance about the visual show during the concert performance, I could have reconciled myself to the reality, and even enjoyed the fresh approach.  I think of the occasional letter I get from a disgruntled visitor to our museum whose expectations weren’t met based on their visit from 20 years ago.  Though I can respond about our new exhibits, the hands-on lab, arboretum, herb garden and more, that does not address their expectations not being met.  I understand that place better now.

How do you prepare visitors for change?

Visualizing Information in Museums Exhibits

C.H. Nash Museum ceramic vessel exhibit redesign - before in background, after in foreground

When thinking about exhibit design, books by Edward Tufte and the webpage of David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful are a couple of welcome resources.  Similarly, nearly 15 years ago I first came across Beverly Serrell’s Exhibition Labels, a book I go back to regularly and assign as a required reading in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Tufte and Serrell profoundly impact how I view presenting information in public venues.

While a graduate student at the University of Illinois, my advisor R. Barry Lewis introduced me to Tufte in the Anthropological Research Design graduate seminar.  An intriguing assignment in the class was to find the best and worst interpretive graphic in a professional journal.  The search produced scores of examples with text that could only be read under 400% magnification, along with jumbles of circles, lines, arrows and their gradient fills that were unintelligible.  For the assignment, students found some great graphics too.  But that assignment some 20 years ago is still relevant when considering the professional PowerPoint presentations of today, often more akin to a dizzying kaleidoscope art form than information presentation.  “Power Corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” so saith Edward Tufte.

About fifteen years ago I completed text labels for an exhibit.  Then Serrell’s Exhibit Labels book, hot off the press, arrived in the mail and I read it immediately.  I then trashed my newly created exhibit labels and started over from scratch.  I now had a guide to a systematic and meaningful way of creating the labels – determining the Big Idea and telling the story.  Although I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, these lessons lead me to strive for clean, clear, and aesthetically pleasing information presentations.

With all of this in mind, three years ago, a Graduate Assistant led the attack on the ceramic vessel exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa – the before and after shown above – by all measures a pretty dramatic improvement.  Besides the aesthetics, the redesign addressed vessel form, effigy symbolism, function, and contextualized the vessels within the site.  The redesign also explained the ever cryptic type names archaeologists assign to vessels.  In the past three years, the redesign received a good bit of visitor and staff feedback.  Based on that feedback, this fall one of the projects for the Museum Practices seminar will be to redesign the Chucalissa Pottery exhibit again.  The ten graduate students will use Serrell and other resources on exhibit labels and design to come up with their individual proposals they will then collaboratively morph into a single final design.

The opportunity for students to engage in such projects is one aspect of our applied studies program that is quite valuable.  Beyond searching for the best and worst interpretative graphic in a professional journal, the students will be able to not just find, but create and resolve.  Such an educational approach provides hands-on experience for future museum directors, registrars, educators, marketers – all fields – to offer more robust and mission driven practices and creations.

How do you create or recreate clear and meaningful exhibits?

Upgrade Now or Become Obsolete!

I try to keep abreast of developments in social media as it relates to museums – the tag cloud on this blog reflects that interest.  There are several blogs and e-newsletters that offer insights on how we do social media at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. These resources include Nonprofit Tech 2.0,  Marketing Profs Today, and Tech Soup.  One of the most relevant social media blogs for museums is Coleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone.

“Upgrade Now or Become Obsolete” is a heading from Heather Mansfield’s newly published Social Media for Social Good: A How To Guide for Nonprofits.   The heading seems a dire warning.  With budget cuts and reduced staffs, how can the medium to small-sized museums be expected to take on the additional social media upgrade?  I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question.  However, Mansfield’s book provides a firm basis to assess a museum or other nonprofit institutions social media presence.  She notes in the Introduction that the book can form the basis of a social media strategic plan.  I agree.

For museums who are beginning to think about mobile apps (Web 3.0), but are still grappling with their social media (Web 2.0), and wondering if the upgrade means they are going to abandon their websites (Web 1.0), Mansfield’s book is ideal.  Mansfield divides the book into three parts based on the noted types of online communication methods.  She clearly demonstrates the interrelationship of the three types.  She argues that one is not better than the other, but serve different purposes.  For example after discussing the Web 1.0 static web page and e-newsletter, the subsequent Web 2.0 discussion of Social Media is viewed as a tool that also drives traffic back to the web page.  At the same time, the web page promotes and is tied to the Social Media.

Each discussion in the book concludes with a list of 5 Must Have and 11 Best Practices for topics such as Website Design, E-newsletters, and Donate Now campaigns.  In discussing Social Media projects Mansfield starts with 11 organizational points to consider before even setting up a Facebook page.  A pleasant addition to the book is that Mansfield provides time estimates that different tasks, such as blogging, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, will take for staff to complete each week.  Although only estimates, I found the numbers a bit on the high side and geared more toward larger institutions than the average museum with only a handful of employees.

Another asset to the book is that each section ends with a list of sites that are Examples of Excellence for the points discussed in the chapter.  “Google This” listings for further investigations are also included throughout the book.  The volume concludes with an appendix checklist to guide the reader through the entire social media process.  Mansfield writes that “To utilize every tool and best practice on this checklist could take 12 to 24 months.  Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by this.  As long as you have the will, you have the time” (p.xiv).  My takeaway is that if one expects to “do” social media in the next month and check it off their task list, they will be disappointed.  As well, Mansfield notes that one should not expect huge returns, whether in visitation or donations, after publishing the first few e-newsletters or fund-raising appeals.  Social media is a process not an event.

Mansfield’s book will be useful to the novice just launching an online social media presence and for those who have worked at it for a few years but need to review, fine-tune, revise, and update their process.  I suspect that the only folks who will find the book too simplistic are those on the caliber of Mansfield’s Examples of Excellence.  For the rest of us, Social Media for Social Good is an excellent resource.  For myself, I have a shopping list of tasks to get busy on.

What are the key resources that guide your social media process?

Museums, Archaeology & Mobile Apps

Got myself an iPad a couple of weeks ago so I am now learning about the mobile app business.  I have to confess that the biggest draw for me in taking the iPad plunge was to use a music/sound making app called Reactable.  At the same, I sufficiently rationalized the iPad’s portability and work applications as factors to justify the cost.  To dutifully follow-up on the rationalizations, I went to the App Store and searched on Anthropology, Archaeology, Museums to see what all was out there.  There is a good bit of cool stuff.  You can tour Roman-era London via the Londinium app produced by the Museum of London, explore the Please Touch the Exhibit app from the Melbourne Museum, view fine art in the Philips Collection multimedia app based in Washington D.C., and on and on . . .

There is a good bit of museum and archaeology app stuff out there.  But are these apps the latest fad, toys, or what?  As is often the case the American Association of Museum provides a good summary overview text on the subject.  Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy edited by Nancy Proctor is a good place to start investigating the applicability of these new mobile applications.  Proctor is the Smithsonian’s Head of New Media Initiatives.

In 100 pages, the volume contains 12 brief overview essays on almost all phases of mobile apps from the technical to practical considerations.  An additional 12-page glossary interprets the jargon inherent in any such discussion.  Although a careful read of the entire volume is worthwhile, several essays stood out to me:

  •  Robert Stein’s essay “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability” deals with the compatibility of museum apps across time and space.  He reports on a paper he and Proctor co-authored at the 2011 Museums and the Web Conference that addresses this issue and references the TourML wiki as a source for ongoing dialogue.  The upshot of the article is recognizing the importance in the early stages of app development that there are industry standards to assure the production of quality and interactive products.
  • Kate Haley Goldman’s essay “Understanding Adoption of Mobile Technology with Museums” is an important first read for anyone considering mobile apps in museum settings.   Goldman astutely observes that “for institutions already using mobile interpretation, encouraging visitors to use the mobile interpretation was the largest challenge.  Yet for others – vendors and researchers, as well as those considering projects – attracting new visitors via mobile was a primary goal.  This disconnect represents a great opportunity for future research” (p. 67).  Goldman speculates that part of the disconnect comes from the validity and reliability of the visitor survey measures.  She argues for visitor based longitudinal studies to help clarify the issue.  This understanding echoes Clay Shirkey’s concern that internet technology must be relevant to existing behavior.
  • Jane Burton’s essay “Playful Apps” provides another layer of insights as the relationship of the museum user to museum apps. She notes that you can explore physics by playing Launchball from the Science Museum of London or learn about human origins by visiting Meanderthal from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  She cites Flurry, a San Francisco based smartphone analytics firm report, in noting that “studying the U.S. mobile gamer, we note that she earns over 50% more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more like to be white or Asian” (p. 74).  Like Goldman, she finds that conventional wisdom on app adoption and use in museums might be suspect and counter the conventional wisdom of the typical app user.
The collection of essays provides an excellent starting point and balanced overview for anyone wishing to get beyond the immediate must have hype or the flip side of too quickly dismissing the use of mobile apps in museum or archaeology public engagement efforts.  However, except for an essay on mobile apps at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, no author in the volume considered in a substantive way whether the apps actually fit in with the mission of the museum or organization.  Proposals for adopting such new technology that are thoroughly enmeshed in the mission of the institution will allow justification of the high cost of app development and equipment often needed to operate the systems.  Otherwise, nay sayers (and funders) may argue that we are just jumping on to the latest interpretive fad.

What is your experience with mobile apps?

From Me to We: Museums & Communities

In academia today there is a tension between the importance of interdisciplinary studies compared to single discipline research.  Although universities encourage collaboration across disciplines as an effective means for applied research individuals are evaluated and rewarded for production within their own departments.  To see the range of the discussion on this point, google interdisciplinary studies on the Chronicle of Higher Education website.

This tension can also be framed within a me vs we approach.  In a strict disciplinary approach, departments are viewed as individual “me” silos concerned foremost with their own self-interest and often with little concern about what happens outside of their own walls.  The interdisciplinary approach is considerably more engaging as a web of interaction that plays off of multiple partners.  In this capacity, the product of the interdisciplinary whole is more than the sum its individual departmental components creating a group synergy.

I have thought about the need for an interdisciplinary approach for a cultural heritage development in project in Orange Mound, an African American community of Memphis Tennessee with roots extending into the late 1800s.  The Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis is currently assisting the Orange Mound community in the creation of a local component for the traveling exhibit The Way We Worked from the Smithsonian Institution.  Orange Mound community discussions around the exhibit immediately raised possibilities for other cultural heritage projects.  In Memphis, there are many individual neighborhood possibilities but little in the way of a collaborative approach.  For example, typical cultural resource management archaeological projects result in gray literature reports and boxes of cultural materials, but little in the way public access or presentation.  A notable exception includes virtual presentations such as the Lamar Terrace project.  As well, for the past five years, the Rhodes College Crossroads to Freedom Project has collected oral history from the African American community.  I have posted before about community cultural heritage the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa collaborated on in Southwest Memphis.  But there is little or no effort to develop an interdisciplinary consortium of collaboration for these types of projects

Interdisciplinary projects have demonstrated considerable worth in broader community development.  For example, at the University of Memphis a colleague, Katherine Lambert-Pennington recently received national recognition for her work in this area.

When considering cultural heritage projects such as at Orange Mound, an interdisciplinary approach seems the most fitting.  The Collaborative for Cultural Heritage and Museum Practices (CHAMP) at the University of Illinois is one such example.  A quick scan of the CHAMP faculty demonstrates the broad interdisciplinary approach that the Collaborative can bring to any issue.  Consider the breadth of those faculty and their resources to envision any cultural heritage or museum project.  Consider how that interdisciplinary set of skills and ability will benefit the greater whole.  I suspect that there are few cultural heritage projects where going it alone will produce a better product.  However, such the multidisciplinary approach necessitates that we all move out of our individual silos and into a web of interconnection with others.

How can you benefit from a collaborative interdisciplinary relationship?

From Me to We – Part 2

Last week I reflected on applying Nina Simon’s “Me to We” concept to institutions.  Certainly, national organizations such as the American Association of Museums, regional variants like the Southeast Museum Conference, and on a statewide basis the Tennessee Association of Museums allow institutions to consider themselves from a we perspective.  However, I am thinking of something more organic to a museum’s very existence.

Here are some thoughts from my institution, the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  We are a small Native American focused museum located on the grounds of a Mississippian (AD 1000 – 1500) temple mound complex.  We also interpret the historic African American cultural heritage of the site area.  As a small 50-year old venue in an isolated part of Southwest Memphis, Tennessee, over the past several years, we have aggressively grappled with the issues of identity and mission.  As an institution, in the past couple of years, we began to more intentionally move from me to we.

  • We are one of  fifteen or so prehistoric Native American venues located along the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri to Natchez, Mississippi.  There is no consortium to coördinate, cross-promote, or inform on these related museums.  Institutionally, through organizations such as the Tennessee Association of Museums there is more structure for Chucalissa to engage with other prehistoric venues six hours away in Manchester, Tennessee, than with the Parkin Archaeological Site a 45-minute drive west into Arkansas or the Wickliffe Mounds, a three-hour drive north near Paducah, Kentucky.  (Of note, even the very successful driving tours of prehistoric sites, such as in Louisiana, are limited by geo-political boundaries.)   Both Parkin and Wickliffe interpret prehistoric sites of the same time period as at Chucalissa.   We now find that through our informal collaboration with both Parkin and Wickliffe, we can effectively cross-promote.  Our intent this fall is to begin a regional presence of the prehistoric museum venues along the Mississippi River that transcends geo-political boundaries.  Such an approach is a good marketing tool to reach the regional traveler and inform local communities of opportunities of related interest in the immediate area.  However, I don’t think that marketing is the real goal . . .
  • Parkin and Chucalissa have actively engaged each other for the past couple of years on a host of products.  Parkin like Chucalissa interprets a substantial African American historic component at their predominately prehistoric Native American focused site.  Each February they host a week of African American cultural heritage activities.  My first thought was – that’s a great idea, we should do that too on our side of the Mississippi River at Chucalissa.  Parkin also had a couple of engaging and creative school programs that we adapted for our site as well.  Then we tried a different approach.  Had we continued on the copying trajectory, in terms of programs, Parkin and Chucalissa could have essentially become clones of each other.  Instead, and very intentionally, at Chucalissa we developed our strengths, but cross-promote those strengths with other institutions.  In this way, we move from ” two me’s” to a true “me to we” setting.
The above process has two benefits.  First, for the individual or group visitor there is a reason to visit both Parkin and Chucalissa.  They will not get the same programming at both sites.  But more importantly, the process allows the two museums to focus on and share their separate missions and strengths as distinct institutions.  I am excited to begin work this fall on a regional presence that crosses into a half-dozen states along the Mississippi River.  Such approaches seem to defy conventional practice.  However organizations from the regional Great River Road to the local Chicago Cultural Alliance are grappling with this process.

How are you moving from me to we with relevant institutions?

Moving From Me to We

Chapter 3 of Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum  is titled “From Me to We” where she considers how an individual’s museum experience might be enhanced by other visitor experiences at the same institution.  She writes:

Designing experiences that get better the more people use them is not simply a question of providing experiences that are well suited to crowds. While many people cite social engagement as a primary reason for visiting museums, they don’t necessarily want to spend their entire visit talking or interacting with other visitors in groups. Successful me-to-we experiences coordinate individuals’ actions and preferences to create a useful and interesting collective result. Technologists often call this “harnessing collective intelligence.”

This passage suggests the very real potential of moving the Me to We concept beyond the visitor experience to the institutions themselves.  In my capacity as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I believe this understanding is ripe with opportunity.  In the past couple of months, museums in West Tennessee formed a loosely structured consortium of institutions.  In reviewing an admittedly incomplete listing of West Tennessee Museums I counted nearly 75 institutions, many of which I was unaware of their existence.  This led me to thinking about the following:

  • If our newly founded consortium takes a unified approach, how will each institution and the group be strengthened in “harnessing our collective intelligence” in cross-promotional efforts?
  • Beyond simple promotion, what is there at each of the 75 West Tennessee Museums that will produce a better collective experience both regionally and at each location?
  • How do we maintain our individuality as institutions to prevent becoming clones to every other museum’s good idea?
  • How do we create multiple webs of interconnectivity without getting completely bogged down in the process?

Related, a few weeks ago a friend was talking to me about the wonders of Spotify.  I signed up for the service and now have direct access to a greater diversity of music than I imagined available – all that I can download to my iPod.  Of late, I have thought about how when I entered high school in the mid-1960s, for my cohort there was Top-40 radio, and that was it.  Shortly, rock took off on FM radio and broadened the scope a good bit.   But today Spotify advertises “millions and millions of tracks” to choose from instantly.  This new choice is both a qualitative and quantitative leap of staggering proportions.

The same is true for the cultural heritage venues.  Besides the increasing number of the institutions of all shapes and sizes, budget cuts, the virtual world, competing leisure time and informal learning opportunities, all diminish the immediate visibility of museums and other cultural venues.  We took for granted the success of these cultural heritage sites in the past.

Moving from Me to We is not simply a matter of pragmatic self-interest and survival.  Rather, moving from Me to We is a means to most effectively live into our missions in the 21st century.  There are tremendous potential and current successes to this movement.  I will review some of these opportunities in the coming weeks.

How will your institution move from Me to We?

Museums: Online, Real-Time, or Both?

A couple of years ago there seemed to be a sharp divide between proponents of online vs. real-time museum experiences.  Now the online museum experience is accepted as here to stay.  I was surprised at the lack of hostility from the museum world toward the Google Art Project.  Having gotten past the knee-jerk position of taking sides in the online vs real-time debate, the discussion now focuses on how the two experiences complement each other.  Such is focus of All Together Now: Museums and Online Collaborative Learning by William B. Crow and Herminia Wei-hsin Din, published this year by the American Association of Museums (AAM).

The volume is typical of the AAM publications that offer a general introduction to an area, coupled with an abundance of resources for further study.  The basic premise is laid out in the Preface that states:

We see these changes and innovations as terrifically exciting – not as a celebration of the new media and technologies themselves, but for the possibilities they offer people.  As we shift from the Information Age to the Collaboration Age, these new technologies offer people the ability to work together in ways that simply weren’t possible even 15 years ago.  And, although museums draw strength from their unique physical collections and locations, they also now see themselves as digital collections and communities, located in an increasingly global world (p. 6).

The authors organize the presentation in four parts:

  • A basic discussion of online collaborative learning – the underlying theory, types, resources, and challenges
  • the conditions necessary for implementing online collaborative learning
  • the roles individuals play in the process
  • the tools for building the online collaborative community of practice
A highlight of the book is the substantive case studies that review the methods, successes, and challenges of the online collaborative process.  The case studies include the Smithsonian Commons project, San Diego’s Balboa Park Cultural Partnership of 26 institutions, and other projects both large and small.  The case studies are particularly valuable in that they give equal balance to what worked, what did not work, and future directions.

The message of All Together Now is consistent with that of Clay Shirkey who notes that it is not the media or technology that drives the behavior but rather enables existing interests.  A distinct value of the book takes the collaborative process beyond the online experience to consider collaboration on an inter-institutional basis as well.

Those who are just beginning to explore collaborative online learning will find All Together Now a useful model within which to start their discussions.  For those who have already ventured down this road, the volume contains a framework to assess the efficiency of existing programs.  For all readers, the book has a wealth of online resources to investigate additional online collaborative opportunities.

The authors and case study contributors leave behind the debate of online vs real-time and instead embrace the collaborative reality that marks the current and future phase of museum outreach to the public we serve.  This focus is consistent with the AAM theme for the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Creative Community.

How are you moving your institution or practice toward online collaborative learning?