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?


  1. Love the post, Ed. But there’s one particular question you’ve missed. We get it a lot, or used to, and it’s a difficult one. It’s the “I have a geegaw like your geegaw. Can you tell me how much mine is worth?”
    It’s a difficult question firstly because museums don’t often want to say out loud what the value is of items in the collection, secondly because staff may not be trained as valuers, and thirdly because we’d rather be having conversations about stories not money. Ideally, we’d love our visitors to be interested in the same things we are – what’s the story, why is it cool, where does it fit? Trouble is, they don’t all oblige. I reckon the only thing you can count on (note tongue in cheek) is that they will *all* want a photo!


    1. Ah, oh course! The “value” question. We get that, too. That could easily be a whole post in itself.

      So, what would a reasonable response to that question look like? I’ve never been a big fan of answers that involve, “It’s our policy not to …” because it sounds like “We know the answer to your question, but we’re not going to tell you because we don’t trust you to be responsible…”

      There’s value, and there’s value. How would you address that naive request in a way that gets at the idea that there are different kinds of value (scientific, historical, etc…) that don’t necessarily translate into $$? And does addressing that kind of question become a feature of somebody’s job, rather than being a by-product of their “real” job?


      1. We get that question quite a lot, and I usually answer with a variation on explaining that valuation for sale and valuation for historical import are very different skill sets, that require me to think in very different ways. I also usually explain, truthfully, that the money value of something depends on market factors that I can’t know, and that a professional appraiser will be on top of that. I’ll also usually explain a bit about the item – if I can! – so that the person at least gets some additional knowledge from our exchange. It helps that my institution does not acquire by purchase, only by donation, so I am never drawn into the “yes, but how much will you pay for it?” conversation.


  2. Ed, like Ely, I love this post and am really looking forward to seeing where this series develops to. But I also wonder whether there isn’t a question missing, although I think my question comes even earlier in the process than your current line of questioning. Do you think the right first question is “who is this collection for?”, which is the approach you have taken so far, or “who is this museum for?”? I tend to feel that those questions would elicit different responses. If the answer to the question “who is this museum for?” was a localised audience, the approach you would take to solve particular problems might be different than if the museum was primarily for a specialised but dispersed audience. Such a question might also define the importance of the collection in the institutional model. Is the emphasis on programming or collection? Is it on preservation and sharing of knowledge, or on sparking conversation (would those two approaches mean different things?)?

    So, are we making a museum from scratch, or making a collection awesome and useful to its audiences? It will have implications on staffing, and structure, and budget. It still returns to your final questions of “How might you serve these audiences? What would you serve them?” But I think the path is a different one (although I could be wrong). What do you think?


    1. Oh, excellent deconstructing! One of approaches I am struggling with is finding the right balance between generality and specificty. My inclination was to be as abstract as possible, so as to include as many viewpoints as possible. I always get cranky art museum people say “museums” when they really mean “art museums” and I was hoping to not be carelessly exclusionary.

      But you’re right. There is a question missing, which is “What is the mission of this imaginary museum?” I wonder whether for the purposes of this exercise, we should think about what should go into crafting a mission, or just say, we’ve got a typical mission to serve a broad public audience and educate them about a particular time and place and how it fits into the bigger picture of national and world history. I’m a bit intrigued at the thought of looking at how one does the kind of envisioning necessary to craft a non-bullshit mission statement, but a bit daunted as well.


      1. This is your exercise, so you can decide whether we stay general or get specific, but I think if it were me, I’d advocate that we get specific and try to design one particular idea-museum. I think where some of my own posts fall down is that I am thinking through questions with a general focus rather than a specific one, and so the issues that come up – whilst interesting – are often unable to be cemented.

        Even within this, I think I’d like to problematise the idea of a “typical mission to serve a broad public audience”. In the Guardian’s live chat about museums last week, the introductory blurb asked “what’s next for museums?” and then included as unquestioned a statement that said “planning for better business, developing digital, increasing skills and knowledge, improving visitor engagement and attracting wider audiences are things all museums and their associated companies should be doing anyway.” In some ways I was troubled by the assumption that a museum must be “attracting wider audiences,” rather than maybe working to be the best possible vehicle for a particularly niche audience.

        One of the exciting things, for me, about this project is the opportunity to pull apart some of our very basic assumptions… like the fact that museums must always “attract wider audiences.” So maybe trying to craft a non-bullshit mission statement is actually a really excellent starting place?


  3. Fascinating post and comments…but I’m trying to (and somehow your image of boxes made it a bit harder) the so what of this…so I’d like to walk it back even further than Susie to talk about vision. And I’d be pretty vehement about not sticking with the standard mission–I think that’s part of the problem is that many places are too willing to stick with that. So, I’m with Susie–what could be the non bullshit mission for this?


  4. I’d start by putting a nice cross-section of your imaginary collection on an open truck or table in a busy shopping street and advertise “get something historical/cultural/artistic for free” and see what people pick. Ask ‘m why, what they want to know about it, how we can get them to pick up one for all their family and friends (preferably bringing them along). The audience will tell you how to serve them, and from what they don’t know or get you see where you can teach, educate and surprise them. It’s great market research and guessing from the fact your 200k objects haven’t been on display before, there will not be a lot of noise when you give a couple of hundred away.


  5. Thanks, Suse and Linda. Finding a way to start this whole idea has been a challenge, because it’s so big and amorphous right now. I appreciate your effort to try to wrap your heads around it. Consider me well-problematized.

    Let’s stick with our starting conditions of a pile of stuff in boxes, and a desire to preserve, display, and contextualize said things (or a subset thereof), because they tell a story about the human condition in the past that (hopefully) sheds light on our current condition. Given those assets and desires, what does a solid mission need to include? I agree with Suse that the typical mantra of “wider audiences” is problematic, because nobody can continually reach more and more people. That was certainly behind my asking who are the audiences for this stuff and what do they want.


    1. Wow. Love this conversation and wish I wasn’t trying to respond on a phone keyboard. Mission statements are tricky. Having just been through a strategic planning process, a mission statent should distill all you learn about the institution down into an aspirational idea to lead you forward. However, I find that the mission is still unclear because it changes depending what constituency you are courting. Is this common? Would this be easier to avoid with a new organization not burdened with the politics of the past? We crave to move forward, yet are hung up by old habits. But even if you create from scratch, does a mission change for audience? A tangent. One of many my brain is playing with. Thanks Ed.


    2. What does a solid mission need to include in the current social and technological context, that maybe an older museum’s mission might not have needed? One idea could be that the [name] museum *enables* new insights and information through the use of its collections. That way, making the collections available to scholars and the broad public via the Internet – and any other appropriate channel – is built in. The emphasis is less on the museum providing new insights, and more on making them possible. What do you think?

      BTW – can we give (y)our museum a name? The mission statement will sound better that way 🙂


  6. Hi, Ed, this is a very thought provoking post, as the comments and responses indicate. It seems like everyone is walking your question back, and I want to join in. The minute I read that you were starting with 200,000 archeological objects I had some kind of unnamed feeling or mental “huh?” that I think encompassed (but not so well articulated) all of the questions raised above and also included: who did this stuff originally belong to, why is it gathered in boxes in storage? It seems like a museum starting from scratch today would try to find out who were the original owners and whether a museum should first try to return them or distribute them (if original owners want them or exist today) before setting them out for others to select, or setting them out for documentation and/or display. The insight your post provided to me was that the starting place for museums has a lot of baggage of power, ownership, control, etc already attached that needs to be addressed before its audience or community is known, so that the very idea of why one would even think a museum holding this material should be created is called into question. (Not that I think there is a single right answer.)

    Thanks for raising this and I hope you’ll continue with your series despite questions like these. Best- Gretchen


  7. Honestly, I think my first question is going to be “why does this need to be a museum?” The breakdown of that is going to be several variations on the collection itself, in terms of its value for a particular audience: “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?”; “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?”; “is this collection sexy/applicable enough to really support a ‘broader mission’ beyond ‘learn about cool stuff’?”

    I’m actually about to start working in the next few weeks with a small historical organization that is grappling a bit with these questions: we have a collection, we want to share it, now what? I’ll have to work with them further but I’m not at all sure the immediate answer is “make it a museum!” I wonder if the answer in this case isn’t going to be to split the collection up and create a partnership with another organization in order to store/curate/access it, but create an umbrella project that’s designed to exploit the collection in a variety of creative ways that go beyond the four brick & mortar walls.

    I’ll be very interested to follow this thought experiment!


  8. Great post as usual, Ed, and I’ll give you a pass for stealing the title of an old post of mine that I’m sure you haven’t read 😉 ( I think, like many of the other posters here, I question many of your initial assumptions–just because you have a collection, you don’t necessarily have to display it. Just because you have a building, that building doesn’t necessarily have to be used to display those collections, or as a place for people to visit.

    I think in this scenario, I’d probably try to get down to prioritization right away. First off, don’t work from the assumption that all (or even a significant part of) the collection will actually be worth anyone’s time to catalog. Do some triage and figure out whether you’re really dealing with a collection of significant *unique* value, or a collection with a mere handful of objects that can/should be part of the global conversation. I like Jasper’s suggestion–part of the triage you do might be offloaded onto your potential public, which would help keep your triage nurses more honest about which objects receive priority.

    Doing this triage will keep you lightweight, because you can focus on the handful of truly valuable/interesting objects right away, rather than proceeding with a multi-year, grant-funded “we must catalogue everything” project. Once you’ve identified this handful, then you can really get down to figuring out whether A Museum is what you actually have. If you have an interesting enough collection that having it permanently displayed makes sense, then do that. If you don’t, then start thinking about alternate scenarios. 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.



    1. Gah! I did unknowingly pick the same title! Mea culpa! I suppose I’d just better get used to the feeling of going somewhere new and finding you already there, nonchalantly leaning against the wall.

      I loved the accession number idea in that post!


  9. why cant you just build a building put paleo artifacts in it and a musuem. i do not have a staff just me . do i need a paleologist,or archeaologist since i have artifacts next to bones , drill bits next to the bone with the hole in it . i just want to show people what we once were, i have alot to show. 1 camp we have 3 era of tools , pottery. camps with artifacts 12000 years old . camps with artifacts from other continents. so can i just make a museum, yes i am lakota


Comments are closed.