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?


  1. Great stuff Ed! You’ve gotta know that I loved seeing all this talk of transparency in my twitter feed this morning 🙂

    I think it’s important to consider the fact that Transparency in-and-of-itself is not inherently good. For example, sharing information that would breach a contract, or break a law, let alone whether or not such sharing is wise to begin with.

    The question about “what not to share” as opposed to “what should be shared” is the right way to go about it, however, it shirks the question a little bit regarding why transparency is a GOOD thing in the first place.

    In some previous posts from 2009 ( I proposed one definition of transparency that still rings true to me. I’m curious if it fits in the context of this discussion too?

    In my mind, transparency is a communications tool that is based on an organization’s commitment and desire for authenticity. That desire for authenticity demands an open disclosure of good, bad, and otherwise unknown facts about how museums work. Transparency then, is a reflection of the integrity and proficiency possessed by the museum at any moment in time.

    Aside from my personal conviction that this is right; I think that there are some well-documented reasons why transparency as a business strategy makes sense.

    Robert Putnam and others talk about the connections between an emergent Reputation Economy (that I think is fueled by transparent practices) and what economists have termed Social Capital.

    Just like real physical or fiscal capital, social capital has a direct impact on the viability and financial health of our organizations. Rather than being driven only by supply and demand, social capital is accrued by building honest relationships with a community.

    If folks are interested, theres some quotes and citations in my DISH2011 talk last year on the Reputation Economy (

    Such a great post Ed! Really wonderful thinking and practical example f the modern-day agora you have mentioned before!


  2. Thanks, Rob. I should’ve known this was a road you’d already been down before. Your 2009 post is dead-on! And you are of course correct. Transparency is only a tool to demonstrate our value or authenticity as you put it. My Twitter feed lit up with people who work in ill-suited fishbowls, not because it’s useful or meaningful, but because somebody in power wanted transparency, but didn’t dig into why it *can* be a desirable thing.

    Thanks for bringing in Putnam and social capital, particularly your point about it accruing as a result of relationship building. That’s a key thing and it’ll be a slippery one to measure. Reckoning yearly attendance is easy. Getting off the “How do we raise attendance every year?” carousel to something more authentic will be a real issue.


  3. Ed, Rob – thank you both for such interesting and provocative posting. These questions intersect with some thinking I’ve been doing lately, so I really appreciate its timeliness.

    Questioning “why” aiming for transparency is important is obviously critical. Megan Cook, in talking about open government, writes that “By taking a public value perspective, the notion of pursuing transparency is assessed by identifying its value (e.g. social, political, strategic, financial, ideological, etc). The end goal is to accrue public value and transparency is the means to achieve it. That is, transparency is not an end society pursues for its own sake.”
    Meghan Cook, Delivering Public Value Through Transparency, 2011

    As you both mentioned, then, transparency is not the end goal. The end point is about authenticity and engagement and public value. So transparency becomes the means, rather than the purpose.

    So could there be public value in 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? I personally think the answer to all of these things would be yes (and compellingly so), although I’d be interesting in hearing arguments to the contrary.

    BTW Ed – I like the question you raise about inverting the current pyramid of transparency, tucking away exhibitions from view. It recalls to me what Seb wrote recently on one of my posts, about MONA:
    “It might be instructive to consider that MONA (Hobart) is entirely about ‘the collection’ and the ‘experience of objects in the flesh’, that they purposely withhold any access to their ‘collection’ until you’ve been a visitor.
    There is no access to their online collection until you’ve been.”

    I wonder whether/how such a device could be used in a museum that sought to be (physically) transparent… maybe images of certain objects on exhibition could be kept out of the online collection (even if the information about such objects was made accessible), so that the best objects in the collection had to be seen in the flesh to be seen at all? Something to think about.


    1. I agree that the answer to all your questions is most likely a resounding “Yes!” At the very least, they are all eminently testable ideas and worth pursuing.

      The inverted pyramid is exciting and a little daunting. The idea of embracing the immersive and magical certainly appeals to me as a developer, though the nagging voice in my head is whispering “Disneyification!” Have to grapple a bit more with how much to heed that warning.

      I’m going down to Hobart this August, largely because MONA looms so large in discussions of new ways of conceiving of museums. I look forward to adding my review to the ones already out there from Seb, Nancy and others.


      1. I’m wary of collapsing all the tribes of Open Government into one movement. There are very different motives across the political spectrum each with very different ‘outcomes’ resulting from transparency and openness. There is no contrary evidence to suggest the same wouldn’t be true of open museums/open culture (in fact I have a half baked blog post in the wings on this). For all the rhetoric about ‘shared goals between museums, libraries, and Wikipedia’, the reality might be very different.

        Tom Slee has a great piece on this that has attracted a lot of scorn from the tribes – – which is well worth reading.

        As fas as ‘Disneyfication’ goes, I think on closer examination there’s a hell of a lot museums would do well to heed from Disney. The criticisms usually have roots in class divides – who goes there and why – rather than any reality. A heavy focus on excellent customer service and the sense of a ‘lifetime customer’ is something every museum should immediately steal from Disneyland.


        1. Thanks, Seb. The Slee article is great, esp. the back and forth with Tim O’Reilly. I look forward to reading your post on it when you finish baking it. I’m with you on Wikipedia, but Ithink until somebody makes a concerted effort and succeeds or fails, the debate will always devolve into rhetoric.

          Thank you for calling me on the Disney reference. It was classist and you’re right on their customer service.


  4. I am twenty-five, so when thinking about my generation, the question isn’t “why transparency?” but “why not transparency?” We are a generation that expects instant access to information. When that information isn’t present or accessible, we begin to become frustrated, confused or sometimes angry.

    Because those younger than the Gen-Y/Millennials will only be more accustom to instant access, it is critical than any new (and all established) museums consider how to cater to the way that younger people think. Our digital native brains just don’t accept letting someone else filter what we see/hear/learn. An open and accessible collection allows for that natural Google-brained synapse of information seeking.


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