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Forward thinking from a century-old shipwreck

ballard3.pngThis Sunday will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Like a lot of people, I've always been fascinated by the stories of both the sinking of the ship and the discovery of the wreck in 1985, so I jumped at the chance to attend a presentation by Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who found it, at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, Tuesday night.

Ballard is a gifted storyteller and an ardent preservationist, and he argues that instead of removing artifacts from the Titanic wreckage to bring to museums for people to see, people should be taken to the Titanic to see it—but not how you might think. He showed a slide depicting his vision for building a permanent support structure for remote-operated camera equipment around the wreck, enabling visitors at museums on land to view and explore the wreck in real time from thousands of miles away, and he says this "telepresence" technology isn't that far off.

As he talked about the idea, it became clear that we're all fortunate the Titanic was found such a forward thinker. He mentioned the explorers who found the tomb of King Tut in Egypt and said that, if they'd had the foresight to know that the masses might one day be able to easily visit the sites in ancient Egypt—this was before widespread use of airplanes and automobiles—they might not have packed up all the artifacts and sent them to a museum in London. In the same way, thinking about how the world could be brought to the Titanic through technology could help preserve it.

It struck me that that kind of thinking is just what an association needs from its CEO and board of directors: the ability to imagine and plan for not just what is possible now but also what could be possible in the future. When it comes time for long-term planning and developing strategy, an association CEO should guide the board to embrace the anything-is-possible perspective, and it's also a good reason for a nominating committee to seek potential board members who demonstrate that mindset.

The evening spurred a couple other association-related thoughts, as well:

  • National Geographic's package for the Titanic anniversary is an example for associations to follow for creating a multifaceted experience around a story or education. The package has included two magazine features, an interactive iPad app, a museum exhibit, a live expert presentation, and two television specials. The question of money and resources is always a challenge, but most associations engage in all of these types of platforms (or similar ones). Few, however, are so skilled at coordinating a package of resources and events across all of them at once.
  • If Ballard's vision of a telepresence Titanic museum experience ever comes to life, that will remove just about any excuse associations would have for not creating virtual and hybrid event experiences. If live, interactive video of a shipwreck 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean could be brought to your computer screen, then surely a presentation in a convention hall could be, as well.

The event was filmed, so keep an eye on the National Geographic Events video library if you're interested. I'll come back and embed or post a link to video once it's up.

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