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Stone Soup

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Stones in broth in a soup bowl
"Stone Soup" by Qù F Meltingcardford is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We’ve reached another milestone in the celebration of the Center for the Future of Museum’s first decade of work: the 10th anniversary of the CFM Blog. I think that the first post on the blog (published February 11, 2009) has held up pretty well. Many people still feel “reality is broken” (perhaps now more than ever!); the demographic, economic and social challenges presented in our inaugural report still face our field; and I still believe that if museums are willing to relinquish a bit of control, we can be the magic stones that bring communities together to create shared good.

Elaine Gurian has started an interesting thread on Museum 3.0 titled “Museum as Soup Kitchen.” She asks how museums are helping their communities in the current economic hard times. “It is clear to me,” she writes, “that museums could be much more helpful and timely by changing hours, job retraining, health care information and all manner of social service. What I wonder is if you think they should do that or retain their primary function of preservation, education, etc. or do both and if so what is the mix?”

An extremely timely question—exactly the kind that the Center for the Future of Museums exists to explore. CFM is not just about helping museums navigate the future, and be the best museums they can be. It wants to help museums realize their potential to help society be whole and strong. “Reality is broken” said Dr. Jane McGonigal in the first CFM lecture last December [that is, December 2008]—summarizing her thesis that people spend massive amounts of time computer gaming in part because they can’t find happiness in their real lives.

Sound too dramatic? Two recent CFM futures forecasts dramatize the challenges we, as a society, face—not just to finding happiness on the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but to meeting basic needs. Reach Advisor’s “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures” is a sober, careful look at trends shaping our world in the next quarter century. Even this relatively conservative report portrays a future in which energy costs soar, social services are strained by an increasingly aged population, and the U.S. struggles with a long-term recession. James Chung and Susie Wilkening envision a diverse and fragmented society that, due to the proliferation of personalized media, has few points of common reference and is strained by increasing stratification of wealth. And that’s the rosy version of the future.

Museums & Society 2019” is far darker. This crowdsourced report was created by players in the game Superstruct. Based on plausible if somewhat extreme scenarios created by professional forecasters at the Institute for the Future, it reflects a world stressed by refugee populations displaced by political conflict and climate change, plagued by unstable energy supplies, epidemic disease, threats to the food supply and malicious corruption of web-based information. The players exploring museums in this future project massive closings, mergers and relocations, the adoption, by necessity, of extreme “green design,” and museums forced by financial distress to digitize archives and sell off the original documents. One player in the game echoed Elaine’s question, asking “What does it mean to have a museum when your needs for food, shelter and community are not being met?” Another player envisions that “many museums [become] makeshift ‘sites of conscience’ for displaced institutions and communities.”

However, Dr. McGonigal, in her CFM lecture, also expressed her optimism that museums can help invent a better future, create a sustainable future and “save the world.” So, to return to Elaine’s question, if museums do an excellent job in their traditional roles of preserving and educating, would it be enough? Or if job retraining, health care information and social services are what our communities need in order to survive, should we explore how we can use our resources to help provide those things, as well?

Now, I am sure that in her post Elaine meant “soup kitchen” metaphorically, but in fact Megan Dickerson responded with a story about the Boston Children’s Museum’s “GoKids in Boston Neighborhoods,” a series of family dinners at public housing developments. BCM saw this human services project as “a kind of empowered soup kitchen,” providing families with food, health and nutrition counseling. Megan goes on to tell how the project, in a unexpected twist, began to attract higher income families, resulting in yet another great outcome—creation of a social occasion in which families of very different cultures and economic strata mingled and formed bonds. What a great, if unexpected, outcome! And one that directly addresses the need foreseen in “Museums & Society 2034” for museums to find ways to counteract the forces fragmenting society.

Megan’s response made me think of another interesting twist to Elaine’s metaphor—from “Soup Kitchen” to “Stone Soup.” Do you know the story? Two beggars show up in town. The townspeople all say “don’t expect anything from us! We are starving, and can’t give you anything. It’s all we can do for each family here to take care of itself.” “Don’t worry about us,” the beggars say. “We don’t need food from you. We will make ourselves a delicious stone soup!” All the villagers gather around, curious to see how this will work. The beggars do point out they have to borrow a kettle, and firewood, which are duly provided. They carefully remove a rock from their tattered bag, and put it into the kettle full of water. “This will be fabulous,” they say. “Of course, it would be even better with a few carrots in it.” You can see where this is going…eventually they get people to pitch in potatoes, spices, a bit of meat, some grains, and they end up with a vat of soup big enough to feed everyone in town, which they proceed to do.

Museums start with far more precious resources—their collections, building, expertise. But in hard times some people (evidently Senator Coburn1 among them) think that a museum is about as useful as a stone. As the story of the beggars points out, even if you don’t grant its intrinsic value, a stone can be a starting point. It can be a focal point to bring together all the other resources of the community until there is enough, all in one place together, to serve everyone.

The other thing I like about the “stone soup” metaphor is that it shows that to act as a “stone” a museum has to relinquish some control over the end product. The museum says, in effect, “here is what we have, what can you bring to the table?” And, like the Boston Children’s Museum, you may find that unexpected people show up with unforeseen contributions and unanticipated needs. And that’s ok. If museums are open to the possibilities that arise from all the wonderful things that they do and have, they can, as the CFM mission statement says, “transcend traditional boundaries to serve society in new ways.” Ready to make soup?

1 On February 4, 2009, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment to prohibit any funds in the economic stimulus bill from going to museums. The language of the amendment read “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.”

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1 Comment

  1. I have to admit that I was struck by the Stone Soup analogy, but it also brought to mind some of the complications related…

    Isn’t it fortuitious that the townspeople came out as the beggars are passing though town?

    How many people don’t even realize or notice the events and opportunities available…or it is always the same people who DO notice (i.e. in keeping with the analogy, the social workers and shelters)? How many of us don’t meet a beggar’s gaze? They have nothing to offer me…

    And is it really a town of starving people unwilling to share? Or more a town of people who don’t realize they are starving at all?

    I have to admit, I always tend to wonder at the initial step. The call is to draw museums into the role of societal facilitators; not just experts in content, but really experts in content MANAGEMENT when the content comes from a wide variety of ever changing sources (and demographics). But to obtain that content, to get the villagers to give up their vegetables, there needs to be “buy in.”

    If a man on the street told me if I gave him a dollar he’d buy us both a gourmet dinner, I am afraid my response is more skeptical. It isn’t to give him a dollar, but to offer to sell him the Brooklyn Bridge!

    Obviously, I’m loving the analogy and am still chewing on my own thoughts relating to encouraging “buy in” to this new collaboration (from both the beggars AND the villagers).


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