Making a museum from scratch: Part Five

For those of you just tuning in, I’ve been on a long extended thought experiment on what a traditional museum (one built around a collection of stuff) might look like, if you were to start one from scratch, here in the VUCA 21st century.  In Part One, I launched into this with both feet. Part Two was spent addressing concerns and questions raised by thoughtful commentators. Part Three introduced a model of radical transparency, and suggested inverting the traditional continuum of transparency that privileges exhibitions over collections. In Part Four, I played this out a little further and proposed what might be in the mission statement of such a museum.

So far, so good, but it’s still been pretty abstract. From here on out, I’d like to try shifting gears a bit. Taking as givens the mission elements in Part Four, and this idea of a radically transparent museum, Time to get tactical now. In this post I’d like to consider the the plan of work for the 24 months leading up to opening. In the next post we’ll look at the positions that we will need to describe and fill to carry out the plan of work.

T-minus 2 years and counting

We’ve been so good at laying out a compelling case for our new museum that we’ve secured adequate funding to start planning for our museum. According to the architects and fundraisers, it’ll take two years to make the necessary modifications to the structure to render it habitable and adequate for our needs. Two years til opening. What do we need to do between now and then to make sure the museum opens with as much of a chance to succeed as possible?

Being anti-dichotomistic

One thing I am painfully conscious of is my desire to frame everything in terms of the physical/digital dichotomy that I have grown up with. At the same time, I am fairly certain this kind of thinking is unhelpful in the long run and needs to be replaced with a holistic approach that doesn’t come easily to me. My “kneejerk reaction” plan would be to mark when the building opens on the big calendar, and work back from there, finding all the milestones that need to be hit before that can happen and fill in around them with other stuff, like digital milestones, like “the website” and “online collections”. Ack! We can do better than that.

I find it very exciting to think that by the time the physical museum is open to the public, it could already have a loyal audience who know the organization, it assets and its goals and values. While there is a pretty straightforward pipeline of events that need to happen to open a museum, rather than doing it in secret and springing it on an unsuspecting world once we’ve polished it, we have the opportunity to use our belief in being radically transparent to build our audience as we build the museum. The point is not to get to opening day, but to build relationships using the content we produce, so that by opening day.

Involving the staff

Coming up with a creative process without the creatives on board is a little weird. Our museum will not be very large, so the people who fill the positions will in large measure be directly responsible for living out the mission. They should have the ability to shape the process themselves, since we know that creative collaborations can be extremely fruitful, and from a management perspective, giving your staff the ability to be partners in shaping the institution is a benefit as tangible as flex time or even money.  So, acknowledging that we need to design process that leaves room for them to alter it, how much should we try to nail down beforehand? It seems to me that once some core positions are filled, that team could draft a plan that was fairly complete.

And let’s not forget the audience

Elizabeth Merrittt at AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums touches on many of the issues we’re grappling with for our new museum.  She problematizes the current continuum of transparency and urges us to “turn a threat into an opportunity, and use the internet to burst out of our opaque walls. Making digitized collections accessible in meaningful, compelling ways makes people aware that we have them, even if they aren’t paying to use them.” She further goes on to make the point about involving the audience in the work, saying museums should, “invite people to help with their work through crowdsourced participation and support their work through crowdfunding.”  The crowdfunding idea is one I want to come back to some other time, but the basic idea of increased audience involvement is very important. This idea was subject of an excellent post by Paula Bray from the Powerhouse called “Ask more questions: bring your audience into the decision-making”  which pushes the idea of radical transparency so far as to suggest that museums could benefit from asking more qustions of their visitors. Bray says,

“We put on exhibitions for our communities and yet there is rarely the opportunity to engage them in the initial decision-making using our collections with the traditional exhibition development model.  What do you want to see here?  Are we putting on exhibitions that you are really interested in?  These questions may be asked buried deep down in an evaluation questionnaire but are they upfront on our home pages?  Would doing this narrow the gap between curators museological interpretation and visitors experiences?”

Creating engaged audiences

Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson posted a lovely diagram that I’m stealing to help us think about engaging our audience. They call it a digital engagement framework, but I’m not convinced that it is unique to the digital realm. What do you think? It’s got a wonderfully cyclical structure which I think is helpful since it always drives you back to the audience.

Also wortyh considering is Bansi Nagji’s and Geoff Tuff’s post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network called “A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation”.  They posit what they call an “Innovation Ambition Matrix” to help organizations allocate funds among initiatives. What I like about it is that it proposes three different kinds of initiatives that companies undertake; core innovation initiatives (doing what you do better), adjacent innovations (doing slightly different things, or doing them in slightly different places), and transformational initiatives (doing completely new things in new places). They don’t prescribe a particular formula, but advocate for looking at the total innovation agenda, rather than the more usual ad hoc collection of initiatives most organizations undertake. Good stuff.

So what does this mean for us, 24 months from opening? Our museum has obvious assets; the archaeological collection and the archaeological and historical information associated with it. There will be more assets in the future; staff with skills and expertise, a physical presence, and a substantial body of digital assets related to the objects in the collection.  How do we turn these assets into content and activities?

At the two ends of the transparency spectrum I proposed in Part Three we have the collection and the exhibitions. Our collection needs to be catalogued, digitized and contextualized so we can know what we have and how it all relates.  How can we build those systems so that they serve to engage our audiences as well as serve our needs? What other platforms might we use to tell our stories? 

The exhibits devoted to the site need to be developed, designed and built.

How can demonstrate our transparency in making the experiences before the museum opens? 

The inverted pyramid of transparency makes a lot of sense to me because so much about the process of exhibition involves hiding and revealing already. A good exhibition directs the attention, focuses, and expands it, all using a relatively small number of objects and experiences compared to the holdings of an average museum.

Seb Chan and I have talked a number of times about the lack of magic in science museum exhibits. As makers of experiences for museums visitors, we alays want to provoke a sense of wonder, of drama, and magic. Often, though, we limit ourselves in what we consider acceptable. Employing overt theatricality, or too much perceived emphasis on ensuring visitors have an emotional experience runs the risk of being accused of “Disneyfication” which I have certainly run into in the past. Seb pushed back against that,

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.

He’s right, too. It is mainly a classist and elitist reaction to something that is for the hoi polloi. His post on seeing a production of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is a must read.

I feel like I can imagine what a more transparent way of dealing with our collection might look like, but the idea of more mysterious kind of exhibition is still elusive.  Sleep No More is a great example. I would add Dialogue in the Dark to that list. In this exhibition, sighted visitors walk through a pitch black exhibition with blind guides, who help them navigate simulated everyday environments and really get a visceral sense of what it is like to be blind. I want more of those outliers.

What examples do you have of immersive experiences that engage in great storytelling that we might consider for our new museum? Don’t limit yourselves to museum experiences.

Related Links 

Center for the Future of Museums, Our Broken Economic Model

Paula Bray, Ask more questions: bring your audience into the decision-making

Museums and visitor created journeys

Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson, Duende: a story about digital strategy []

Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff, A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation

Seb Chan, Freshandnew(er), Sleep No More

Additional readings

Harold Jarche has an interesting post on “pull” learning versus “push” learning [] that might be useful to consdier while thinking about these questions.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker have an article on the Museums Association (UK) site called “Reimagining museums: Why the Google Art Project is important” [] that is a good summation of a lot of the issues we’ve discussed.


  1. I agree that it’s important to strive “to provoke a sense of wonder, of drama, and magic,” and I agree that Disney is a model for visitor service. However, I don’t think the impulse against against theatrical, Disneyfied displays is always elitism. Often, if something feels too theatrical, it’s because it’s oversimplified. If in the process of heightening the drama, a story becomes one-sided, then you’re losing something important.


  2. Hi Tegan,

    Interesting distinction, and one I agree with, though I’d call oversimplified theatre “bad theatre” and thus something to be avoided.


  3. I am glad that you mention the possibility of the Digital Engagement Framework working beyond digital. I was using it today to think about the whole offer of a Sculpture Park and found it to be really useful to explain that the venue has more assets to engage audiences with then the artworks alone (as important as they are).

    Be sure to let us know if you do anything with it. It’s a work in progress and the more people playing with it, the better we can collectively make it.


    1. Thank you for making it freely available. You and Jasper deserve great credit and (hopefully more work) for sharing what others might hoard as a trade secret. Independent professionals play such an important role in the museum ecosystem because you have such broad experience working with all different kinds of people, institutions, and models.

      It’s certainly going into my toolbox of ideas. I look forward to seeing how it develops and how well it scales beyond the digital.


  4. Hey Ed – there is so much to think about here, it’s almost hard to know where to start. So I am going to arbitrarily pick your question “How can demonstrate our transparency in making the experiences before the museum opens?”

    What about a weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating. Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens. Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance. Document (and make available those docs) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home.

    Hold preview exhibitions in pop up spaces. SFMoMA have just announced they will be closed for 2.5 years whilst undergoing redevelopment, using the time for “extensive offsite programming”.
    Hire a member of staff specifically for engagement early – well before programming can happen in the space. Run idea labs, like SFMoMA is proposing, that starts discussion early. Use the construction period as a time to run talks on museum architecture with local architecture students (gosh – invite them into the building, or work with local academics to make proposals for their own versions of the redevelopment part of their assessment, and then exhibit them alongside the model of the real building).

    Doing these sorts of activities could do what Paula suggests, and bring people into the planning process in some ways, but also give them ownership and insight into the process. Managed well, this then gives you 2 years of engaging people prior to opening, and introduces the collection, the ideas, supports the mission.


    1. As I was posting Part Five I had that same thought, “It’s too damned big, you oaf. How will anybody make their way into it?” And yet you do. 😉

      I am very excited by the pop-up idea, hearkening back to some of the first comments on Part One. Recalling some of the things Margriet Schavemaker and Hein Wils did while the Stedelijk Museum was closed, and what SFMOMA is going to do while they’re closed gives me confidence that we could come up with a menu of offerings that would be lively and bring the institution to life long before it is manifest in the world. The part of your comment that made say, “Yes!” was your statement about hiring someone whose job was engagement. Whether we use Jim’s and Jasper’s framework or some other model, it is imperative that engagement be someone’s primary job responsibility, and that his or her mandate cover all the functional units of the museum. I toyed with idea of a “Chief Engagement Officer” but the acronym would cause confusion, and I always get a queasy when I read titles with the word “officer” in the title.

      My question for you (as a follow up to your suggestion) is this: Would it make more sense to make audience interaction part of everyone’s job, or hire specialist community managers to deal with our local audiences?


      1. I think it probably has to strike a balance. A specialist manager would be able to drive this kind of interaction more strategically, and I think that’s important. You need someone to have an eye on the overall strategy or the museum, and its engagements, for this kind of thing, and also to have the power to compel staff to provide content. Having said that, looking to Koven’s idea of the kinetic museum, making communication a key competency for all (or many of) the staff would probably get people thinking about how/where it fits within their actual work.


  5. BTW – this process could be a great way to attract additional funding/support. “Oh – you know that problem we were having with wifi? Well Blah Blah have just come up with a great way to help…”


    1. Totally agree. My experience with potential donors/funders is that nothing stimulates them like knowing precisely how their support is going to help. The radically transparent museum should have no trouble demonstrating both the need and the potential success that could be achieved with more support.


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