Monthly Archives: May 2012

Making a museum from scratch: Part three

The previous post in this series generated some really stimulating comments that have helped crystalize a lot ideas that have been swirling around in my head for the past month or so.  A lot of your feedback and questioning has centered around being clear about goals, and questioning starting assumptions.  This is what I had hoped might happen, but I’m still profoundly grateful to all of you who have shared your wisdom thus far. I’d like to use this post to answer some comments from Part Two, synthesize them into some guiding principles, and to propose a model of radical transparency as an organizing scheme for our new museum, both intellectually and physically.

From the first post in the series, a number of commenters have probed at the idea that a collection of objects even needs to be a museum, with some fascinating alternatives proposed.  For the purpose of this experiment, I’m going to say that we’ve decided that our collection of objects is of sufficient interest to warrant a home of their own rather than being dispersed among existing collections. Let’s also say that after careful deliberation, it’s been decided that the site the collection represents is important enough to the local population to warrant starting an institution devoted to studying the collection, and telling the stories of the people represented by the objects in the collection. Let’s also assume for now that we don’t have any human remains to deal with, since that’s “a whole ‘nother kettle of fish” as they say round here. We have enough problems to solve already.

The comments have highlighted for me is what lies at the center of the soul of the museum endeavor; the two practices of collecting and displaying of objects, and the constructing of stories using objects and experiences.

The overlapping nature of museums and collections
Mia asked a question about the distinction between a museum and a collection. “Does a museum (as a venue, not as an organisation) always imply the display of a sub-set of a collection? And does it always have interpretation about those objects, either individually or as sets?” I think the answer to both of her questions is, “Yes.”

Another way to frame this is to juxtapose the processes that result in collections and museums. Curation is the act of acquiring, assembling, researching and cataloguing objects for a collection. Interpretation is the act of providing information about ideas using objects from the collection.  So let’s dig a little further into the collection part of our museum.

Reflect the process behind the collection
Sheila brought up an important point that could have a transformative effect on how the institution might physically acknowledge its creation. If we were to shape the museum around the excavation process, from discovery, to interpretation, to synthesis, the collection could also tell the story of the people who found and care for the collection.

Make the collection accessible
Rob insisted that online collections needed to be thoguht of as museum experiences, with as much potnetial to engage and teach, if only they were better, which echoed some of Mia’s concerns about her experiences working with large archaeological collections and the paucity of (pertinent) information they contain.

Ashley wondered about creating transparency in the collection by doing a Google Museum street view type of experience and creating the possibility of “walking” through the vaults, being able to click into and explore the collection virtually. A digital walk-through experience would create much more transparency than the standard online cataloging system. Seb, ever the boundary-pusher, proposed using robots for storage tours!

Involve the community from the start
One of our underlying assumptions will be that the collection has relevance to the local community. Mimi urged us to not only make sure that the collection is digitized and made accessible online, but that there is also a physical space in the community, or on or near the excavation site, to house and interpret artifacts. The community connection needs to occur in both physical and digital realms. Sheila suggested getting the collections information online as soon as possible in the process in order to gain an audience in advance of the physical opening, and to start a relatinship with them that might inform the design and building process of the physical struture and interpretation. Corey, who is actually engaged in the process of making a museum from scratch, underscored how media and technology can be great facilitators. Linda wondered how we could build a museum that could “have objects with real meaning to our communities in places where they can see, understand, learn and connect with them?”

Move online values into the real world
A theme of the comments was making things visible; objects, processes, and people.  Suse proposed a continuum of transparency which would move conservation and research practices out of the basement and into open or public environments. She proposed turning the museum inside out, exposing that which is usually hidden. It’s an interesting transposition into the physical space of the ideas of openness we talk about online. Awhile back, Koven Smith asked, “What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?” Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog and her subsequent work on participatory experiences draws heavily on Web2.0 ideas.

So what are the different values of the web (transparency? openness? customisable experiences?) that we could apply to a museum being made from scratch? Corey proposed several; digital technologies “facilitate personalization and dialogic interaction (read: engagement), and be cost effective on practical levels of experience design – immersive, emotive, reflective, interactive, diverse, and personal (onsite and for remote audiences concurrently).”  Add to this Seth Godin “The quickest way to get things done and make change. Don’t demand authority. Eagerly take responsibility. Relentlessly give credit.” Lastly, throw in some of the ideas Koven Smith proposed at MuseumNext for “the Kinetic Museum”; communication as the core responsibility, collections managed in ways to leverage digital technologies, not to compete with or ignore them. Go scope out the whole thread of #kinmuse tweets for more.

Radical Transparency
The idea of a continuum of transparency also appeals greatly to me as an organizing scheme, particularly if we invert the current pyramid of transparency. What would a museum look like where the collections and research processes were visible and exhibitions were tucked away and designed to promote the kinds of immersion and magic Seb Chan wished for in “On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling.”

A few years ago, I attended an AAM/NAME workshop called the Creativity and Collaboration Retreat. The organizers did a great job of finding outside instigators to provoke attendees and stimulate new kinds of thinking.  One of them was Harley Dubois from Burning Man, who introduced me to radical inclusion. One of the underlying philosophies of Burning Man is that everyone is included in the work of Burning Man, from artmaking to keeping the community running unless they’ve demonstrated a reason they shouldn’t be. This is a complete inversion of how things work in what Burners call “the default world,” where you have demonstrate that you’re qualified to do something. What if our museum were founded with a version of a philosophy of radical transparency underpinning everything it did? If instead of asking, “Should we publish this information?” our default question was “Is there some reason not to publish this information?” How might this help us embody the qualities touched on above?

The idea of a radically transparent museum is a little mind-boggling to me. I work at a museum that doesn’t even make staff phone numbers accessible. While that might cut down on unwanted sales calls, it also cuts down on all calls. If you don’t know me already, you’ll have to get through a gatekeeper (switchboard operator) to get my phone number. What would a radically transparent museum look like? Labels that tell you who wrote them? Objects whose whole histories are freely available to visitors? Information that both draws from outside sources and leads visitors outside the walls of the museum? Workspaces that are visible unless they need not to be?

What would a radically transparent museum look like to you?

Next Drinking About Museums: Boston – Thursday, June 7th @ Colonial Inn, Concord

Flickr image by Mr Kael

Howdy, friends!

We’re continuing our ambitious agenda of museum visits followed by drinking, and this month, we’re moving out into the ‘burbs, this time to Lincoln, MA, and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.  Their new Gary Webb show will be up and our hostess, Jennifer Schmitt  is hoping we might do a bit of  brainstorming about how deCordova might employ digital technologies in their future plans. Bring your thinking caps!

We’ll be at deCordova at 4:30PM looking for you.  DM me (@erodley) or Jenn (@bantryhill) if you get lost or delayed.

Afterwards, we will adjourn to The Colonial Inn in Concord for refreshments. It’s a short drive from deCordova, so leave yourself transit time. If you can’t join us for the museum part, come meet us in Concord! Burgers and beer will be had and more conversation will follow!

June 7th, 4:30PM
deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
51 Sandy Pond Road
Lincoln, MA 01773

drinks following at 6PM 
Concord’s Colonial Inn
48 Monument Sq.
Concord, MA 01742

Please join us for part or all of the festivities!

Making a museum from scratch: Part Two – inspirational readings

The comments on Part Two have been really fascinating to read and take in.  Addressing your feedback has been very important to me, so Part Three is still cooking. And a core part of that practice is finding other information in the world to help make a point, provide examples, or provoke assumptions. Seemingly everything coming onto my screen this week has had relevance to this exercise, so I thought I’d pass along some of the background reading I’d been doing while writing the next post.

New models
1) Nina Simon’s latest book club subject on her Museum 2.0 blog  is “Blueprint” the fascinating chronicle of the abortive attempt to create a Dutch Museum of National History.  It’s a great read, and I’m looking forward to the discussion.

2) In the same vein, Science Gallery, Dublin has posted an open call for “GAME” their new exhibition on the future of play. I haven’t been (yet) but I’m intrigued by Science Gallery’s  vision, to be “a dynamic new model for public engagement at the interface between science and the arts.” Among the differences, they tout five factors:

  1. Our flexibility – five dynamic, changing programmes per year, with no permanent exhibition;
  2. Our focus on 15 – 25 year olds as our core target audience bridging high school, university and early stage career;
  3. Our open call process – Science Gallery crowd-sources its installations and events on broad themes linking science, technology and the arts;
  4. Our fresh approach to connecting the university and the city –  bringing university research groups, staff and students into dialogue with the arts and creative community and the public; and
  5. Our Leonardo Group – 50 inspirational individuals drawn from the local creative community of scientists, artists, engineers and entrepreneurs who feed ideas into the development of Science Gallery exhibitions and events.

No permanent exhibition? The whole place becomes whatever the current exhibition is? Very interesting…

New ways of being
3) Rich Cherry tweeted a great nugget from Seth Godin called, . “The quickest way to get things done and make change”  that also bears on our discussions

“Not the easiest, but the quickest:
Don’t demand authority.
Eagerly take responsibility.
Relentlessly give credit.”

Easy to write. Much harder to live, but if they could baked into the DNA of a new organization, how might those sentiments express themselves?

4) Following on the call to eschew demanding authority, Maria Popova posted a short review of a book on on storytelling and the search for meaning. “The Spirituality of Imperfection” The title alone was enough to interest me, but what caught my eye and made me add it to this list was Popova’s assertion that the book “is really about cultivating our capacity for uncertainty, for mystery, for having the right questions rather than the right answers.”

Living and working in an institution that is very concerned with both “being right” and getting visitors to ask the right questions, this book seems like it’ll be getting added to my list at the bookstore soon. So many modern museuological concerns, like the authority crisis, the (mis)appropriation of curation, participatory culture, and more, all relate to this need to both know, and be “right.”

5) This notion of being in the storytelling business amplifies something Seb Chan has posted on Fresh and New(er). We’ve been talking for some time about the lack of magic in museum exhibitions, particularly science museums. Go read “On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling” and read it all the way through, because Seb’s saves his best questions for the very end.

6) Turning data into information is one way museums tell their stories. Mia Ridge tweeted this little gem that goes right to the heart of so much of what being an institution with a collection is like nowadays.

We can propagate huge data sets, but can we contextualize them so that anybody else who’s not already an expert might find value in them?

7) Both Janet Carding and Mia Ridge forwarded along this provocation by Hadrian Ellory van Dekker, Head of Collections at the Science Museum, called ‘What are Science Museums for’  where he takes apart a dominant paradigm in my part of the field about how “problematic” collections are. What is interesting is that he doesn’t bemoan interactive exhibits as usurpers. Instead, he problematizes the whole perceived dichotomy and ends up saying, “Science centre or science museum? Why should we have to choose? Any science museum, fortunate enough to possess a collection of significant and historic objects, quite simply has to be both.” Collections-based or interactive doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition.


7) Lastly, I can’t point to it yet, but talking with Koven Smith about his upcoming MuseumNext talk on “the Kinetic Museum” has been enormously helpful to me.  Hopefully it will appear in some form online so I can link to it.

Part Three is coming soon!

Making a museum from scratch: Part Two

In Part One, I posed a pretty big question, “How would you make a museum from scratch?” and dove right in to discussing audiences. It is such a big topic, I decided to take the plunge and hope that some of you would be willing to go along, and lo! you did! A number of you though, quite rightly said, “Whoa! Ed! Back off, man! Your assumptions don’t make sense to me.” So before I swim out any further over my head, a little more context. This post could probably be called Part One, the Less Sketchy Version, rather than Part Two, but so be it…

There are collections, and there are collections

One of my reasons for picking an archaeological collection as the basis for this experiment is that the processes that result in the creation of scientific collections and art collections are very different and I wanted to be able to explore that.  Archaeology is a destructive practice. To study an archaeological site, you have to destroy it. When you’re done, you can’t put it all back so another archaeologist can come in re-excavate that site to test your hypothesis. It’s a one shot affair, so there is tremendous pressure to preserve as much as possible, since that will likely be the only surviving remains of that site. So while you might think of an archeological collection as only the objects or artifacts collected during an excavation or survey, a collection actually comprises many other classes of materials with scientific value. These would include biofacts (pollen, seeds, plant and animal remains) soil samples, radiocarbon and other dating samples, and more.

So to Gretchen’s question in the first post expressing amazement at the size of the collection, when your collection includes these other classes of material, 200,000 objects isn’t all that big. For my thesis research, I was looking at 17th and 18th century shipwreck sites, and the ammunition totals alone from those sites would be in the tens to hundreds of thousands of objects. Granted, they are small and indistinguishable objects, but there you go.  From looking at these collections of indistinguishable, individually uninteresting objects, one could make inferences about the size and character of the firearms present on these ships, even though the weapons themselves were largely disintegrated. Would a general public audience ever want to come see 88,000 lead musket balls? Probably not, unless you did something very artistic with them. Do they have value to another audience? Absolutely.  The same applies to many natural history collections. The public might not find much interest in forty seven study skins of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), while an ornithologist might need a larger sample to answer his or her question.

To (hopefully) address Linda’s confusion over the image of stacks of boxes, and others’ concerns over size, let’s say our collection of stuff comprises 200,000 archaeological objects. Of these, over half are going to be Ziplock bags and boxes full of stuff (soil, greebly bits, and otherwise undistinguished cultural remains like potsherds and the ammunition from my earlier example). Of the remaining objects that the layperson might recognize as “artifacts”, the total is probably in the low thousands. To use Koven’s triage metaphor, the ones that are worthy of being part of the global conversation probably only number in the high hundreds, maybe the low thousands.

The distinction between a museum and a collection

I love the comments from Part One probing at the distinction between whether this pile of stuff is a museum or a collection, because they aren’t the same thing. Amanda asked some excellent focusing questions which I think it might be helpful to address individually to help us move along:

“Is this a truly unique/valuable collection, and if so, to whom – scholars, people of a particular interest group, people of a particular area, people of a particular cultural heritage?”

I want to think expansively and really tease out a lot of issues, so let’s yes to this question. Your relevant experts have declared the collection “important” both to a local public audience through what it says about their area, and to a potentially broader audience because of historical importance. It is interesting to archaeologists and other specialists for reasons they will explain to you in great detail, which you may or may not fully understand, though you appreciate them.

“Will this collection achieve greater value on its own, as a niche display, or will it add value to an encyclopaedic collection at another institution?”

Now here’s an interesting question! Does it make sense to start yet another museum, with all the concomitant costs involved, or would it be better to send it to an existing museum? Rainey Tisdale asked much the same question via Twitter and it’s an excellent fundamental question to answer definitively. I imagine many of us have encountered institutions that were founded with the best of intentions, which nonetheless couldn’t construct a viable, long-term value proposition to their intended audience(s). To me, this question also goes along with some of Koven’s triage questions. Is this worth making a museum out of? If not, maybe you have a roving collection that makes occasional appearances at schools or public events. Maybe you have a storefront museum. Maybe your “museum” exists primarily online, and only occasionally manifests itself in a physical sense. I want to come back to all thee scenarios, as well as Jasper’s idea of literally taking the collection out on the street and seeing what people resonate with.

Again, to move the experiment along, I’m going to say yes to this question. You’ve done your due diligence and looked around, talked to lots of colleagues at other museums and collections, and arrived at the conclusion that your pile of stuff could reach its highest potential to be part of the global conversation in it’s own context, rather than being added to an existing museum’s collection.

“Is this collection sexy/applicable enough to really support a ‘broader mission’ beyond ‘learn about cool stuff’?”

A fascinating question, requiring some real soul-searching! This goes along with the previous question about achieving value. How do we use collections of stuff to create value of some sort? Suse also got at this point with her question about whether we were making a museum from scratch, or making a collection awesome and useful to its audiences. Even if all of the conditions above are answered in the affirmative, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have a museum. We might have an archive, or an educational institution devoted to teaching history through this archaeological lens.  What makes a collection a museum?

To me, the answer to Amanda’s question comes down to curation. Is there an obvious connection between a collection of discrete objects and the global conversation we are always having; “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?” For me, the best museums let me walk around inside those questions and walk out with a different understanding than when I entered. If the connection can’t be made obviously, and quickly, then the answer to the “broader mission” question would be “No.” and this exercise would turn into something different, though equally fascinating.

As the final brick in the foundation, let’s say that this collection has such obvious connections to big issues that it’s obvious to you that you could construct an experience that would be a clear benefit to a public audience, a more diffuse audience interested in history, and a specialist audience.  This experience would be based on a subset of the collection of objects that is interesting and discrete enough that you feel they need their own manifestation in the world as a museum.  The rest of the collection would need to be stored and cared for its scientific value, but is probably never going to excite much public interest.

How’s that for a better framework to talk about missions?

Making a museum from scratch: Part One – inspirational readings

While my small reptilian brain tries to ingest and synthesize the many brilliant comments and emails you sent in response to Part One, I thought I’d pass along some of the background reading I’d been doing while writing the first post.

Museums of the future: providing the personal, collaborating with the crowd | Culture professionals network | Guardian Professional Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift: Gail Anderson

Center for the Future of Museums: Some Notes on the Future of History Museums

The Future of Museums | HASTAC

What Comes After Digital? – Collections Trust

Seeing museums in 2060 « The Learning Planet

Press Releases New Report Explores Roles of Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture

Making a museum from scratch: Part One

This is the first of a series of posts on imagining a new museum from the ground up.  I have no idea how long this might take, so bear with me. It also turns out to the 100th post I’ve written since starting this thing, so onwards!

As many of you know, a lot of discussions this past year have revolved around how museums might use digital technologies to do differently (better, even?) those things that are parts of the soul of the museum enterprise. I posted about one of these conversations awhile ago. One fruit of those talks will hopefully be some really interesting conversations at the Museum Computer Network conference in November. As part of this, I had one of those little epiphanies that draw you up short and make you say, “Huh!”

Mine went something like this. I was digesting loads of information on how people think technologies are going to disrupt the established ways we do business, when I realized my mental picture of what that disruption might look like was pretty foggy and ill-defined. So, I thought it would be a fun thought experiment to build a new museum, one with no baggage, no legacy systems, no entrenched staff of Generation ___ who need to understand ____.  If you were going to build a museum in 2012, what would it look like? How would it be organized? Who would work there and what would their work lives be like? Want to play along?

Here are some starting conditions:

  • You have a collection of about 200,000 archaeological objects. (It’s what I know… pretend they’re paintings or wombats if that’s more your thing.)
  • You have a building, probably old and originally something else. You can’t mess with it in any substantial way. It’s a big empty box, that’s big enough for you and your stuff and staff and visitors.
  • You’ve got enough money to hire a small staff to get the place up and running, but not infinite human resources. You’ll need to be judicious in hiring.
  • You have a mission that’s broad enough to allow you to reach beyond your primary area of collecting, and a Board that’s willing to give you enough rope to hang yourself a couple times as you figure things out.

Let’s start with the collection and the information we collect, create, and share.

Working with collections

crates from Flickr user opencontext

So you’ve got a warehouse or two full of artifacts. Let’s save them for a later post. They’ll need to be crated up and transported, so while that’s happening, let’s turn our attention to the associated paper that holds all the information about the objects: files on every artifact, field notes from excavations, conservation reports, drawings, photographs. Filing cabinet after filing cabinet full of the stuff. There’s probably a few floppy discs hidden in the files as well, with personal files, correspondence, and who knows what else? There’s already a numbering system, but you’re under no compulsion to retain it if you have a reason to renumber everything more logically. Archaeologists aren’t necessarily noted for coming up with cool schema. The collection starts at Artifact #1 and goes to Artifact #201836 or thereabouts. There are probably a few artifacts that got missed when numbers were being assigned.

What to do with all that paper?

Obviously, all the archive needs to be saved in some fashion. Lord knows what’s in there that might be of use someday. I am a huge fan of the Museum of Fine Arts Giza Archive project. It manages to provide both breadth and depth of content in its coverage of the MFA’s incomparable exavations at Giza between 1909-1947. It’s one of the few museum collections tools I’ve ever successfully used to look for information about objects. Using original photographs and excavation reports, we were able to make an animation of how Queen Hetepheres’ tomb decayed over 5,000 years. The animators did an incredible job of bringing the information to life, but every time we were stuck on some detail, we could go into the archive and find what we needed.

So for me, the first question is “Who are the audiences for this material and what are their needs?” Some obvious personae who might want to know about this collection are:

The archaeologist looking for archaeological information might want to know;
How many geegaws were found? What units did they come from? Can I have a map/profile/Harris matrix/photograph of the site?

The museum professional looking for museum-related information might want to know;
What’s the accession number so I can ask you for a high-res photo? Is it on display? Can I borrow it? Is it like a similar widget at my museum? Can I get a photograph?

The interested layperson might want to know;
What’s in the museum/collection? Why’s it cool/historic/special? What’s it’s connection to me and my homeplace/country/ethnicity/social group? Can you identify my ____ that looks kinda like your ____? Can I get a photograph?

The student might want to know;
What can you tell me about this topic for my school report? Can I get a picture to use? Can I talk to someone who knows more?

The museum visitor might want to know;
I saw this thing in the museum and want to know more about it. What else is known? How does it lead me out into the world of information about this site/period/people/technology? Can I get a photograph?

How might you serve these audiences? What would you serve them? And how would you make that content available and useable and findable?

Drinking About Museums: Boston – May recap and June date

Writing assignments have been keeping me so busy that I realized I hadn’t posted anything about our May meeting.  Last week, we met at the Museum of Science, where attendees were treated to a presentation by Beth Amtmann and other MOS staff about some of the prototypes under construction for the Museum’s Upcoming Hall of Human Life exhibition. I demoed a new touchscreen we’ve installed in the Colby Room, and talked about plans for an assistive mode for visually-impaired visitors we’re developing.  Turnout was good and we had guests from as far off as Portland, Maine (Hi, Rob!)

Afterwards, we adjourned to Lingo for a rollicking good time.  Finding a place that doesn’t mind when you completely rearrange the tables is a real plus. I might offer Lingo up again as a place to meet.

I mentioned it in person to a few folks, but here’s the official announcement of our next meetup.

June 7th

deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA 01773

details to follow

Please join us for part or all of the festivities!