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
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?