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Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse

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Nancy Proctor
Director, 
The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture and of the MuseWeb Foundation

The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, is adopting a radical new business model and practice of “programming” in the term’s original sense of “public writing”, by enabling citizens and others to write and publish new narratives for the city and thereby expand its cultural discourse as well as the accessibility and sustainability of the Peale as an institution.

After twenty years of vacancy and the dispersal of its collection, the Peale is being restored and relaunched as a platform for innovation in the cultural sector. The former city museum will now be a production house and media maker space. The Peale is beginning its program of cultural storytelling with the Be Here: Baltimore initiative, helping storytellers from around Baltimore record and publish more than 500 stories of the city on a range of location-based and web platforms, including the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) online archive. The Smithsonian MoMS team has added the Be Here program to their traveling exhibitions program and are currently collecting cultural stories in rural communities across the United States.

Be Here has also inspired a co-curatorial process at the Peale for its programs and exhibitions, one that begins with the stories that matter most to Baltimore’s communities. With this approach, relevance and audience engagement are “baked in” to the programming from the beginning – not an afterthought or hope that “if we build it, they will come.” As producer for people’s cultural stories, the Peale becomes a pervasive museum, one where the physical building is not a destination but a point of departure and return.

Thank you all for being here at the end. I have not been able to make it to MuseumNext since 2012, and I’m really honoured and, I have to say, more than a little daunted to follow all these wonderful presentations, not least presentations like that of Dr Guest, who’s really doing what I dream and hope to do. So, I hope this won’t seem a bit of a let-down after all the wonderful achievements that we’ve heard about. I do have one bit of good news, which is that godawful title that you see in the program has been tossed out, and not only have we got what I hope is a slightly more interesting title today, but I’ve got [copies], okay. So, while feeling a little zombie-like today, I will provide them, I promise.

Some of you might know that, in my past work, my most recent position, I was at the BMA, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and before that at the Smithsonian, and also throughout my work at the museums and the web conferences I’ve been very, very interested in this problem of museum business models. Mainly because, frankly, I don’t think the very small number of models that we have today are sustainable for much more than another generation. I hope I’m proven wrong because we, frankly, need more time to shift gears, but it’s something that I’ve been obsessed with and working on for quite a long time.

So, I’ve been very, very lucky recently to have the opportunity to not just talk the talk but start trying to walk the walk, really developing a new model for a start-up institution in Baltimore called the Peale Centre for Baltimore History and Architecture. And, after 20 years of being mainly vacant, we’re renovating the building – yes, spending money on buildings – but also relaunching it as a platform for innovation. And our mission is to help people see Baltimore in a new light. That is to enable the production of new narratives for a city which, unfortunately, all too frequently is known for a very limited range of narratives and stories, and actually add to the cultural discourse to make it more fully representative and inclusive of all the people and all the stories and voices of the city.

So, one of the things that we will be – I suppose I should be paying attention to the slides. One of the things that we will be supporting in the building, that we’re already doing in the community while we’re under renovation, is a media maker’s space, which provides access to the tools and the expertise that are necessary for culture keepers and storytellers to tell their stories across a range of platforms and media. So, it might be walking tours, it could be traditional exhibitions, it could be documentary film, it could be immersive beyond. And we’re partnering with a number of city organisations and individuals to make that happen.

The Peale is also now the physical home of the Be Here Baltimore Project, and that’s in fact how I encountered them and we came together. This is a project that was really the flagship initiative of the MuseWeb Foundation, which is the new not-for-profit arm of the museums and the web conferences. We piloted the Be Here program in Baltimore in the summer of 2016 and, basically, what we did is exactly what I just described. We enabled the culture keepers and the storytellers of this city, through micro grants and technical support, to share their stories across a range of mainly free and open platforms. And in just two months, we had more than 240 stories of the city, geo-located all around Baltimore. And today, a little bit more than a year later, we have more than 1,250 stories of the city, and they are incredibly diverse and representative of the people of Baltimore.

The stories are told by [unintelligible 00:04:19]. They’re told by students, artists, historians, community activists, citizens, and also visitors even, of all stripes.

[Video clip plays 00:04:30 – 00:08:00]

I’m sorry, I just feel moved to give a round of applause. There’s lots more where that comes from if you’d like to hear them.

So, it’s really wonderful now to be able to honour those storytellers in a historic building, the very oldest museum building in Baltimore, with a home and a place to celebrate their stories and their culture. We’re located right in the heart of downtown Baltimore, kind of [County] Corner to City Hall, and this building has a lot of stories of its own to tell that are kind of informing our strategy and how we’re moving forward in developing the Peale Centre. So I’d like to tell you a few of those before I get back to the whole business of my old question.

So, as I mentioned before, the Peale was the very first purpose-built museum in the United States. Its doors opened on August 15th of 1814 and it was commissioned by this man, Rembrandt Peale, of the famous Peale family of artists and natural scientists, explorers, entrepreneurs and inventors. Rembrandt was the second son of this man, Charles Wilson Peale, who was one of the leading American painters of his day, and he also founded the very first art academy and museum in Philadelphia.

So, here in a painting that he made when he was in his early 80s, it’s called the artist, Portrait of the Artist in his Museum, you see him lifting the curtain to welcome you to his museum in Philadelphia. And I’m very fortunate that from the Peale’s, a previous exhibition that was at the Peale in the last century, there is still a mural and a very large scale replica of this in the building. And I like as I show people around to talk about this as kind of representative of a pivotal moment in museum history, where museums were sort of moving away from just being private collections and cabinets of curiosity belonging to princes and wealthy people, to starting to become public and educational institutions.

And there’s so much in this painting that kind of encapsulates that. The way that as he’s welcoming you in to his museum but with the same gesture reminding you that he controls the access to that door and he can also shut you out. And you see, of course, the very well-heeled people in the back, learning from the collections. Also the categorisation of the objects, all these cubbies. You know, until now, these private collections and cabinets of curiosity were really organised according to the private collectors’ aesthetics and personal whim, their own interests. And this is the moment, and actually Charles Wilson Peale is one of the people who started to introduce what was called scientific thought and methods into museum practice.

So, he was a big exponent of [Carl Linneus] the Swedish botanist and natural scientist’s system of categorising things. And you see that kind of coming through in his museum, which had a mix of portraits of famous Americans across the top, natural history specimens in the cubbies, the mastodon skeleton, which he famously excavated from a property in upstate New York and made a lot of money touring around. A really, really fascinating guy.

And he actually had about, he had 16 kids, and I think about 13 made it to adulthood, and every single one of them was trained in painting. A couple were also natural scientists. They were all fairly entrepreneurial and he named his kids names like Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Titian, Rubens, you get the drift. But the girls as well were Sophonisba Angusciola Peale, Angelica Kauffman Peale, Sarah Miriam Peale. So they were all named after artists, or Benjamin Franklin and [Carl Linneus] named after a scientist as well.

This is a silhouette of Angelica Kauffmann Peale that was cut by another young person in Charles Wilson Peale’s household. His name was – he was not named after an artist or a scientist, he was named after a prophet – and his name was Moses Williams. He was actually the son of an enslaved couple who had been part of the Peale household, and had been emancipated by Charles Wilson Peale in 1786. But according to the law of Philadelphia at the time, or Pennsylvania at the time, the child born into enslave or enslavement in that household had to stay with the household until he was 27.

Now, he was not, unlike – sorry, here’s a silhouette of him – he was not trained in fine art painting like the other children in the household, but he was taught how to use a silhouette cutting machine to make silhouettes, which he charged a few pennies apiece for. And he actually apparently did fairly well for himself. Managed to buy himself a house and get married. But he didn’t live very long. A lot more to learn about his work going forward.

So, despite being rather unenlightened in that regard, Charles Wilson Peale did nonetheless advocate for the importance of education, museums, the arts and sciences, and he spent most of his career lobbying then the founding fathers of the country for government support for museums, the arts and education. Unfortunately, he was no more successful with them, or I should say, those founding fathers were no more generous with museums and the arts than the current administration. He never really got a penny out of them. And I often wonder if that’s part of why, when Rembrandt Peale decided to open his own museum, against his father’s advice, mind you, in Baltimore, he chose quite a different business model. That is to say, the business model, let’s run this museum like a business. How many of you have ever heard that?

Museums should be run more like businesses. Well, you can listen to this example and respond with it the next time you hear now there’s a historical precedence from which we can learn.

So, basically, what he did – you see this is an early admission ticket, the equivalent in value to 25 cents – he charged admission at the door. And he needed to make a pretty fair amount of money, because he had raised private investment to build his building in Baltimore and so he needed to give his investors a return on that investment.

Now, it’s daunting to start up a business. It’s daunting to have debt, to have investors expecting dividends. But I have to say of all the [coughing 00:15:19] I’ve participated in or watched in my lifetime, I’ve never seen any entrepreneur have as tough an initial condition as Rembrandt Peale did. Because in less than an hour … in less than a month of opening his museum, the British were invading. This is the War of 1812. It’s its aftermath or its continuation, and you know the famous bombing of Fort McHenry by the British, nicely] recorded or watched by Francis Scott Key, giving rise to, yes, the Star Spangled Banner.            This is that moment, okay. So, less than one month after Rembrandt Peale opened his museum, this was going down in Baltimore.

Fortunately, the Baltimoreans prevailed. The British went away. I hope you’re not taking this personally, Jim [laughter]. And so this is the cartoonist of the day celebrating their victory.

So, Rembrandt had had a tough situation for his start-up museum – to convince people to spend money to come to his museum to see fine art, to see natural sciences, to see the mastodon his dad had [unintelligible 00:16:30] for his opening exhibition, at a time when they were wondering if the British were going to burn the whole entire city down. He did, however, have a kind of a secret weapon, which was, he had been experimenting with gas lighting. Gaslight was a very new energy technology of the day, and so he demonstrated gaslight in his galleries. And his magic Ring of Fire is still available for visitors to see at Baltimore Museum [coughing 00:17:01]. And here’s our friend [Robin Mattey] lighting it for us.

A very good light. I just got to see this lit myself for the first time the other day. Very exciting.

So, he would specifically advertise, tonight the galleries are going to be lit with gaslight. Well, it actually did generate ticket sales and admissions. They say that people would stand out on the street with their mouths hanging open because they’d never seen such bright light spilling out of windows at night before.

So, this gas thing took off and, by 1817, Rembrandt Peale and his newly formed Baltimore Gas Company had a contract to provide gas lighting to all the street lamps throughout Baltimore. He manufactured the gas in the backyard of the museum. Conservator’s nightmare, but anyway, he did it. It was distributed throughout the city in wooden pipes that were actually hollowed out logs. Fortunately, they didn’t have the technology to compress the gas very much back then, so nothing ever blew up but there were occasional fires.

Anyway, that gas company he started did really well, and, not only did it lead to Baltimore being known as Light City, the very first city in America to be lit by gas, but BGE, Baltimore Gas and Electric, is still going 200 years later.

The museum, unfortunately, did not fare as well and, by 1830, Rembrandt Peale and his brother had sold the building to the city, to become the very first City Hall. And it ran as City Hall until the new City Hall was built in the 1870s. This is a photo from actually the 1920s, just before it became a museum again. And you might see it, even though it commemorated this old City Hall and noted the founding of the museum and the inauguration of the first City Hall in 1830.

When it stopped being City Hall, we’re now in reconstruction era US, so the 1870s, just after the Civil War, and they started introducing the coloured school system. That’s just a public school education for African Americans. And the Peale became the very first building to house the first high school for African Americans in the city, and one of the first elementary schools for African Americans.

Now, at first, all that was provided in the public school system in Baltimore was [rare and] elementary schools for African Americans. It didn’t think that it was … they wrote that it was neither necessary nor desirable to provide secondary education for African Americans in Baltimore. Eventually, that policy changed and there’s some really interesting labour law history around this period in the Peale’s past where they also transition from mandating all white teachers in the school to actually mandating African American teachers, providing employment opportunities for the recently graduated African American teachers.

… convinced the city to turn it into the very first municipal museum for the city of Baltimore, and these are some photos of the interiors from the museum in the [20th] century. It ran as a museum until 1997 when, as part of a number of museums in the Baltimore network, the city of light museums, it was shut down. And it’s basically dead empty, except for a couple of really great exhibitions in the [unintelligible 00:20:52].

So, to come back to this question of business models, here I’ve got a museum that has already failed twice. And I might be a little bit worried about three strikes and you’re out. What’s going to be different this time in restarting as a museum? What kind of models will make it succeed in the 21st century where it failed in the 19th and the 20th centuries? Well, I don’t have easy pat answers but I’ll tell you how I’ve gotten to the direction that we’re taking. And one of the initial precepts was really asking, what kind of a business are we. John Hendricks, the founder of Discovery, has written in his biography, his own biography, that so many businesses fail simply because they failed to correctly define themselves.

He gives the example of the transportation industry. That the great railroad companies, who were the economic superpowers of their day, thought their business was about trains and track. And so they missed the opportunity as automobiles and airplanes started to be introduced, of recognising that, actually, they were in the transportation business and they lost out. Similarly, in John Hendricks’s own industry, the big broadcasters – do you remember those days when there were three or four – they didn’t realise that they were in the communications business. They thought they were the TV business. So, when cable TV and the Internet came along, they missed that opportunity by, basically, becoming complacent, or what we call a kind of zombie business. You know? It’s always worked. We’ve got a lot of money. It’s going to keep working.

And I have to say, of all the things that I fear for the Peale and for other museums, it’s this. It’s becoming a zombie institution where you’re kind of stumbling along, you’re making enough, maybe by making cuts every year, trimming there and here, to just kind of stumble down the track. But you’re not really changing the world. You’re not really achieving your mission.

Now, thinking about business models, another place I’ve looked is to some of the writings of Max Anderson. He, as you may know, is the former Director of Dallas Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Whitney, etc., etc. And he’s written about museums as [rarely] businesses. That is to say, we will always require philanthropic support. They will never be able to financially sustain themselves. And he talks about the traditional mission of collecting, preserving and interpreting; nonetheless being able to be … needing to be translated in this century to a new kind of idiom that’s very much influenced by Internet culture of gathering, stewarding, and conversing.

So, it’s a lot less about that kind of, again, collection of curiosity models – here, I’ve got all this cool stuff, let me show it to you – and more about a participatory model, one in which not just the experts in the museum but the communities that museums serve participate.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Max Anderson’s work, and so I say this with all respect, but I think there’s one other aspect of a museum’s mission that we can see at play in the past that we need to add to that list of what we do, whatever our kind of business purpose is. And that is not just the consumption of culture by our audiences, by our visitors, but also enabling the production of culture. And again, I was just thrilled to learn about the Museum of African American History and Culture in Houston really doing this, where it’s not just trying to be a treasure house for all things African American, historical and cultural, but actually actively supporting, through funding and all sorts of ways, the communities producing their own cultural content and artefacts.

So, it’s really about thinking of the museum as not just a treasure house or a mausoleum, but as a platform for creation. How many of you have programs that do this kind of thing, where your participants are creating art or knowledge or scientific research in your museums? Can you put your hands up a little bit higher? I’m going to try to judge. This is maybe half, a little under half. Okay, keep your hand up if half of your programs are doing this. Okay, fantastic. I really want to talk to every single one of you. Keep your hand up if you’re, say, below 10% or so of your programs are producing … I think I did that the wrong way around. All right.

Anyway, it’s obviously something that is not unfamiliar, right. So, you know, in fact, this is similar. [Morris’s] painting of people painting, sketching, [carousing] in the galleries. This hasn’t been, you know, this is not a new thing but it’s something that takes on kind of a new inflexion and has new tools and platforms as well in the 21st century. It’s really a kind of participation that John Alexander from the New Citizenship Project has talked about as the citizen shift. This is again something that’s arisen out of the fact that today people are able to connect and communicate and collaborate with people all around the world. And it’s kind of marking a shift in how we define ourselves, as subjects, as participants in society, from, say, the pre-industrial age where we were subjects. We were kind of born into a certain role, a certain place, in a family, in a community. And we were doing our job if we lived our lives fulfilling that role.

This changed in the, kind of, post industrial revolution area to an age where, actually, we started to have a little bit more [urgency] and a few more opportunities to define our role in society, but largely through what we consumed. So, through the house we bought, the car we drove, the clothes we wore, even the education we were able to afford. We could change the position that we were born into in society if we had the economic means to do so, by and large.

But, today, we have this different kind of role. What we are defining ourselves in, the role that we’re playing in society, is not just based on what we’re consuming but also what we’re part of, what we’re participating in. So here you see the three columns of different kinds of terms that are emerging now about purpose, about participation, about creation, facilitation, about participating together on a shared platform.

So, one of the very early experiences that I had of co-creation on a new platform that I think is part of this citizenship was enabled by an open-source platform called [Groundware]. It was created by the artist [Halsey Bernard], who’s based outside of Boston, and I got to see an installation of his artwork at [unintelligible 00:28:31] park and I actually talked about this [app] at the Museum Next talk I gave in 2012. So if you want to hear more about that, you can go find it on Mimeo, thanks to Jim recording it.

And, since then, I’ve filled, I guess, about five apps on this platform, and essentially, it does two things, very simply. It allows people to record their voices and to hear the voices of others. And it plays back stories and content in a very different way from your traditional audio tour, which is kind of based on the idea of the [stops]. So you go here, you punch in a number or you scan a code or whatever, and you hear the content about the thing you’re looking at. This is more like turning on a radio station so that you’re immersed in this continuous stream of voices talking to you about whatever the subject is of the storytelling experience. But then, you can also contribute your own stories, your own voice, to the stream, and it gets mixed in immediately and becomes part of that process.

So, this is the kind of experience that we’ve now built into a Be Here Stories app that we’re using for the Be Here Baltimore project and that the Smithsonian Museum, our mainstream program, is also using for their storytelling initiative. And I just want to play for you a little bit of what that sounds like so you can experience it. So these are Be Here Baltimore stories from 2017.

[Video clip plays 00:30:00 – 00:33:45]

So you can listen to more stories like that on the Peale’s website, on the MuseWeb Foundation website, on the Be Here Stories app. And if you’re in Baltimore or in any of the other cities and towns across the US that the Be Here Project is operating in with the Smithsonian program, you can hear the stream curated by the movement of your body. So you’ll hear the stories that have been geo-located near you. This is, actually, technologically very basic and very simple, and so our next step is to ask, how can we help these storytellers produce their stories for other platforms, be it a documentary film or Immersive VR, and start to generate revenue streams for their own creative practice as well as to maintain a service to the city off of it.

It is very much a start-up idea, a start-up organisation, being produced under conditions of extreme uncertainty. And basically, a museum staff of one, although I am supported by a wonderful board and some fantastic contractors and volunteers who are participating as well. I hope that some of you might be inspired to be part of this, if not at the Peale, in terms of thinking about your own museums, your own missions. How can you move from being a [training] house to being a production house, much as Dr Getz was describing earlier, to enabling the production of content and culture and not just the collection and the presentation of it?

I think I will end with that, and …

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