Monthly Archives: July 2012

Drinking About Museums: Boston – the coming months

The July edition of Drinking about Museums: Boston was a rousing success! Over a dozen people descended on the Children’s Museum to learn about their Native Voices exhibition and get stuck in their climbing structure. Those of you who took pictures should send them in!

Afterwards at Lucky’s Lounge, we discussed where we’d like to the next few sessions to occur. A ton of good ideas came up which I’ll discuss below.

Heritage Museum and Gardens

Jan Crocker has proposed holding a DAM session on the Cape at her museum in Sandwich. It’s an hour or so in a car each way, so it’d require more planning than we customarily engage in to get everybody properly carpooled and there and back safely. If you have a high-capacity vehicle (like my Loser Cruiser minivan) and would be willing to chauffeur, drop me a line. If we can score one or two mor vehicles, we could get a good sized group down and back. Perhaps September or October?

Running a mobile game in Back Bay

Kellian Adams, mastermind at Green Door Labs and creator of the Murder at the Met game and Agents of Change, has proposed whipping up a version of one of their mobile games and turning us loose on Newbury Street to play and then adjourn to a local watering hole. It’d be a bit of a departure for us, but that’s what we’re all about, being intrepid. It’d take her some time to organize, so we’d need to pick a month and stick with it. I think September would be good, after the tourists have fled and before it gets too chilly.

Other Boston-area locales

In my informal polling of the July attendees, there were clear favorites of a Boston institution that would be good to visit. Front runners were the MIT Museum, the USS Constitution Museum, The Tea Party Ship Museum, and the ICA. I’m going to try to contact all four before we leave for Australia, and see who expresses interest. If you have friends or colleagues there, drop them a line and see who’s game.

The rough schedule for the rest of the year is shaping up to look like:
August: Boston museum (Constitution or Tea Party ship)
September: mobile gaming in Back Bay
October: Heritage Museum or whatever ship we haven’t seen in August
November: indoor Boston museum
December: indoor Boston museum

As always, your ideas and input are welcome.

Reminder: Drinking About Museums: Boston – Thursday, July 19th @ Boston Children’s Museum

Happy Summer, friends!

Margarita glasses
by Flickr user Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

I hope the heat wave hasn’t got you all down because it’s time for another chapter of Drinking About Museums. This month, we’re visiting the Boston Children’s Museum for show and tell, courtesy of Marla Quinones and the BCM staff, and then adjourning to Lucky’s Lounge for drinks and more lively conversation. Details from Marla:

I would like to meet in the Lobby a little before 5:00, say 4:45.  I thought it would be good to follow-up our collections discussion by touring Native Voices.  It’s an interesting time because we just finished an evaluation and doing some remediation (mostly replacing some components that have not held up to our visitors’ attentions).

We’ll be at BCM a bit before 5PM, and plan to be at Lucky’s around 6PM.  DM me (@erodley) if you get lost or delayed.

Boston Chiuldren’s Museum
308 Congress Street, Boston, MA

Lucky’s Lounge
355 Congress Street, Boston, MA
(617) 357-5825 ‎ ·

Making a museum from scratch: Part Six

Summer is a traditionally busy season here. We’ve opened a new prototype gallery to test out components for a computer animation exhibition we’re working on, as well as a half-dozen other projects all chugging along. And my lovely and talented wife and I are going to Australia for vacation in a few short weeks! Which is a long way of saying that I’ve had little time to do more writing.

This post has been cooking for a long time and on the heels of what we talked about in Part Five provides a way to think about how to get from Square One to opening a new museum. I may go a bit wild with an extended music analogy, but bear with me, OK?

Making a museum should be like making an album
In one of the many side conversations I’ve been having about this topic, Suse Cairns made a great analogy that ties up a lot of the pieces we’ve brought up into a neat ball.  It turns out she was a music promoter in a past life, and in the midst of a chat about things one might do before opening, she said,

“[T]he physical museum should almost be like a band who finally releases an album after a lead up filled with playing live, releasing singles and extensive radio play. The album becomes the culmination of something that started much earlier, not just for the staff, but also for the community around it.”

When I read this, I have to admit it knocked me back in my seat.  I grew up with a theatre-based approach in temporary exhibitions. Keeping it all in a locked room until opening was practically de rigeur. As were long meetings about ticket prices and ticket sales, neither of which are good for the soul if they become the only things you talk about.

Treating a museum like an album feels right on many levels because it acknowledges all the distribution channels necessary to create a passionate audience, a fanbase, even!  The musicians I know live to make live to make music, whether it’s around the kitchen table, on stage somewhere, or in the studio. I know they love to have people buy their albums, but the music’s the thing, and an album is just one distribution channel. What if we got off the exhibition-centric thinking we tend to engage in, and looked at a more holistic and transparent model of building an audience of passionate visitors?

The album approach is by it’s very nature pretty transparent. You need to be out in front of an audience to build the momentum and support to fund going into the studio. Taking the show on the road also gives you many chances to show your audience what you’re working on, what’s new. You try out out half-finished songs and do covers. Your audience also tells you what they like and what they want to hear, which are important things to listen for when you’re thinking about what goes on the album. By the time you’re ready to lay down tracks, you’ve (hopefully) crafted a story your audience knows before they ever see or hear the album, and that’s useful and important.

Playing live – Getting out in front of the public
Back in Part One of this series, Jasper Visser proposed loading bits of the collection on a truck and driving it downtown to let the public rummage around in it to see what pieces appealed to them. Aside from the obvious preservation issues, there is something to be said for taking our as-yet-unbuilt museum out onto the streets.

Pop up exhibits and programs
Having a museum with no building may sound pretty daunting, but others have faced the same situation and come to the same conclusion – go where the audience is. While the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was closed for renovations, their team developed augmented reality apps that let you “place” their artworks in the real world using augmented reality technologies. They went to music festivals, and other places where the audience already was and brought the Stedelijk experience to the people.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) recently announced they will be closing their building for two and a half years while they renovate. Instead of treating this like a vacation they are using the closure as a reason to “to experiment with new ideas, engage in dialogue with a range of cultural partners, and create innovative ways for audiences to experience the museum’s collection.

A new unbuilt museum is a perfect opportunity for collaborating with any number of constituencies, from the neighbors to local colleges and universities, peer institutions, designers and architects and more. When everything is still just an idea is the perfect time to cast one’s net widely. Disruptive ideas are less disruptive early, and our staff should be able to fold audience input into their evolving plans more easily than would once architects and shop drawings are involved. And, as Paula Bray suggested in a post I referenced in Part Five, these sorts of activities not only bring the audience into the planning process in appropriate ways, but also give them insight into our process and a bit of ownership – both useful traits in people you aim to serve and ask for support.

So what might we perform?

Releasing singles – Providing a steady supply of your product
Having committed to making a new kind of museum, one problem we’ll have to address head on is audience expectations. It’s all well and good to have noble intentions, but if the audience doesn’t understand what’s expected of them, we’re in deep, deep trouble. Getting them to the point where they are able to engage with us and our content is going to require some careful scaffolding, providing enough structure so that visitors can focus on doing what they want to. Trevor Owens just posted one of the most lucid descriptions of scaffolding that I’ve come across, “Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing” It’s well worth reading in it’s entirety, even if you’re not a digital humanities sort.

What kinds of singles could we release?
Thinking about how we might ensure a steady supply of products to our audience led me into looking at exhibition philosophies. It turns out this has been a good month for manifestos.

Medical Museion, Denmark
Last year, Ken Arnold and Thomas Söderqvist published an interesting manifesto that I only discovered while pondering the Musetrain (see below) manifesto. It’s only got seventeen points, but they’re provocative and worth considering. I pulled out a few that seemed very relevant for what we’re up to. As you read them, think of each as a potential experiment, “If we were going to try making something that expressed this idea, what might it look like?”

1. Exhibitions should be research-led, not a form of dissemination
Curators should use exhibitions to find things out (for themselves and for their visitors) and not just regurgitate what is already known.

The idea of question-driven exhibitions (or products of any kind) is very alluring, and deeply transparent. My experience in years of evaluating exhibitions is that museum visitors find it very exciting to be part of something where the outcome is unknown.

6. Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder
Deliberately include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for. Visitors should leave exhibitions wanting to find out more.

This totally resonates with Seb’s Sleep No More post (which I will stop referencing if I ever find a better example) in which he quotes one of the creators of the piece saying “explanation is the killer of wonderment”. He sums up, “What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all?

10. Celebrate the ephemeral quality of exhibitions
Like good pieces of theatre, they gain much of their energy by being around for a limited time and then disappearing. The fact that they are time-limited gives their makers a degree of freedom to experiment and be daring. Grasp it!

There’s that theatre metaphor again. It’s hard to escape.

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

Some visitors might not be interested in reading what the curators write, while others might not look at many objects. Some will be interested in aspects of a topic that the curators might not have come across.

Constructivists unite!

16. Make exhibitions the jumping off place for further engagement
Good exhibitions are the point of departure for a longer relationship. The value of exhibitions should only partly be judged by analysing how many people come, how long they spent in a show and what they think of it. On this basis alone, most exhibitions are foolishly expensive ventures, particularly in these cash-strapped times.


The other fascinating idea the Medical Museion have put forth is a short post on “The Trickster Museum” as the genius (in the Classical sense of a spirit) that informs their work. They say,

“Tricksters are characterized by cunning intelligence (metis in ancient Greek) that thrives in a changing world with no regularity. It is not the rational deliberation of Apollo, but the spur-of-the-moment artfulness of Odysseus. It is a form of intelligence that favours action over contemplation.”

What kind of genius informs your museum’s work?

Musetrain – We have some suggestions…
One of the most interesting and mysterious events of the past month has been the appearance of Musetrain. This anonymous manifesto and Twitter account purport to be from a group of museum professionals who have been around the block a few times. They contend that “while the soul of the museum is a constant, the ways in which museums and their staff need to engage has to emerge in new forms.“

To this end, they have produced a list of a 100-odd statements (in the style of the ClueTrain manifesto) that are well worth reading. The list is too long to post here, but some of their suggestions align with the issues that I’ve been trying to unpack in this series of posts and amplify that the others listed above have also been grappling with. Just to pick a few…

Aim to be a place of delight and wonderment.
Again with the wonder!

Stop settling for “best practices.” They are “acceptable practices” at best.

The museum experience isn’t onsite, offsite, or online. It is all of these things together.
Amen. I think the promise of making a museum from scratch is as an exemplar of what this might look like.

Create frameworks that let visitors do more with your collections and ideas than you can imagine.

Every time you create a destination (a website, an app, a publication, an exhibition), build it on top of a service and use it as an example of what’s possible.

Services should be aimed at incredibly broad audiences, destinations can be aimed at narrow audiences.
These three suggestions are a good way to think about the collection and its uses, and how to keep the destinations and the collection continually in contact. The idea that every product of the museum is tied to a service that increases access to the collection is pretty powerful.

Understand the the difference between authoritarian and authoritive. The former is suicide, the latter is relevance.

Museums demonstrate authority through engagement.
I’ve lost track of how many people have taken up this cry since I first heard Rob Stein talk about it. I like this formulation of it because it focuses on how to demonstrate authority, rather than engaging in hand wringing over our perceived loss of authority. The focus on engagement, too!

Extensive radio play – Getting your message out
Getting the word out will be critical to the success of this project. We will initially have very little to show people; a vision and some stuff.  Making our message clear enough to be memorable, and restating it in every conceivable medium will help us ensure that when the building is finally ready, people will know what we’re about and why. Two museums have been very inspirational to me in this regard, even though one of them never happened.

The Walker Art Center and it’s website
I won’t join the chorus of people crowing about the Walker’s website. Go see it  and compare it to other museums’. Their mission is to be a safe place for unsafe ideas and their website gathers the best of what the web has to offer on contemporary art. Not just their content, but any content they find. In keeping with the style of this post, they’ve gotten radio play by becoming a radio station.

More constructively, I think the Walker has taken a huge step forward in modeling how museums can continue to be meaningful places to visit on the web. The willful blindness that the vast majority of museums use when it comes to “their” digital content maybe have been a viable strategy – in 2000. Designing online experiences that try corral visitors into staying within one site for all their information needs is worse than futile in 2012. Walker’s current site is a wake up call that acknowledging that the universe is bigger than your institution does not equal renouncing your claim to authority in your areas of expertise. As Nate Solas said at MuseumNext in Barcelona, “Curating the web gives us authority online.” Making your online visitors aware of what’s going on in the world and what you find valuable and relevant is another expression of transparency that I imagine will stand them in good stead in the coming years.

The Dutch Museum of National History and their experiments
It’s been just a little over a year since I read Jasper Visser’s announcement of the cancellation of the Dutch Museum of National History, a project that actually tried to create a new national museum from scratch, and got a long way down the road before it ground to a halt. Luckily for us, there is “Blueprint” – the post-mortem of the project written by Erik Schilp and Valentin Byvanck.  It’s an intriguing, engrossing look into what might have been that is at times really visionary.  Nina Simon lead an online book group around the book that unpacks a lot of the issues the book exposes. Check it out. 

There was also an earlier publication that is more germane to our discussion, “The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination” This 60-page booklet was published early in the process and documented the vision for the museum and the story of what the museum was going to be about in some of the clearest prose I’ve seen for what was essentially a branding piece.  If I find a link to it, I’ll post it.

One of museum’s great successes in my opinion is the extent to which they set about living out their vision through a series of projects that all delivered examples of what a 21st century history museum could be like. There was a train car that toured the country, the National Vending Machine, which dispensed bits of the Dutch experience, and a national competition to suggest new images of the Netherlands to replace the old postcard images of windmills, dykes and tulips. The project did an excellent job of getting their message out and getting noticed and talked about.

As an example of living and working transparently, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. You can get a very clear sense of what The National History Museum project did and thought and planned, warts and all, and I imagine the museum field will be learning from them for years to come, precisely because they were intrepid enough to be radically transparent.  They were, in essence, like one of those bands that never made it big, but played some awesome live shows that the people who saw them will talk about for a long time.

So all you museum/musicians (I know quite a few and I bet there are many more), what say you? Does this approach resonate? Is there merit to thinking of the work of making a museum more like performance, and less like product?


Related Links

The Stedelijk Museum


Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

The Trickster Museum

MuseTrain: We have some suggestions…

Walker Art Center

Bumpy rides and dead-end streets

Blueprint, a guidebook to build your own history museum in the 21st century

Schilp, E. and V. Byvanck (2008). The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination. Arnhem: National History Museum.

Museum 2.0: Blueprint Book Club Part 1: How Do You Create a Future-Thinking History Museum?

Talking about collections

Last week, a group of us from the Museum of Science (MOS) went over to the Boston Children’s Museum (BCM) to have an informal chat with our colleagues. Loren Stolow from BCM wrote me a few weeks back asking if any of us were interesting in coming over to talk about collections. Jennifer Jensen, their Curator was leaving and they wanted to have a chance to talk about her work while she was still there. Since I’ve been writing a lot about collections, Loren pinged me and we had an engaging talk about collections and some high quality/low impact professional development.

I know some of you are doubtless thinking, “Science museum and children’s museum staff talking about collections?” Read on…

A bit of history on both sides. The BCM is almost 100 years old, and is one of the few (I think four) children’s museums in the country with a sizable collection. If I recall correctly, their holdings run to around 70,000 objects, with extensive ethnographic collections as well as toys and other objects associated with childhood. The MOS started in 1830 as the Boston Society of Natural History and operated as a natural history museum for the first century of its existence. Even with the shift from natural history to science education, and massive deaccessioning campaigns (you’re welcome, Harvard et al), MOS still has a remnant collection of about 30,000 objects, with substantial holdings in New England flora and fauna, a live collection (AZA accredited, no less!) and the usual technological bits and pieces. Both BCM and MOS are are a bit odd amongst their peer institutions in this regard. It turns out that current practice at both is still influenced by our collections.

About a dozen of us had a lively talk about collections and collecting and how our institutions do (or don’t) make the most out of the collections we possess. Aside from a brief digression/rant about the definition of “curation” and its appropriation and misuse, we pretty much stayed on topic the whole time. What did we talk about?

Making the invisible visible
A major theme of our talk was about raising the profile of collections in institutions that don’t “see” themselves as collecting museums. One thing BCM struggles with is how easy it is to not know they have a collection. I had no idea their collection was as broad or as deep as it is and I reckon I’m more attuned to this than their audience. Jen detailed some of the efforts they’d made during her tenure to make the public more aware of the collection and how hard it is. Even in exhibitions like their “Native Voices” which is full of objects, they’re so well integrated into the design of the space that its easy to not to think of them as collections objects. We discussed the dialectical relationship between preservation and access, and I tried out some of the ideas on continuum of transparency from exhibit to collection which will hopefully find their way into the next installment in the Making a museum from scratch series.

New England Habitats by Flickr user mos.engineers

MOS has a slightly easier time of it because our natural history lineage is literally written in stone. The MOS has your classic diorama hall “New England Habitats”, a large permanent exhibition/open collections storage area on classification called “Natural Mysteries”, and teaching collections of specimens that are in heavy rotation among our educators. Getting the collection in front of visitors as “the collection” seems to work for us.  The other thing that works is that our curator has a dedicated case in a high traffic hallway that features the personal collections of staff and members. Seeing someone’s collection Girl Scout memorabilia in the Museum makes a strong point about our instinct to collect. And it draws the parallel between our collection, what museums do and what “normal people” do.

Natural Mysteries, by Flickr user mos.engineers

Is it real or is it virtual?
Our one major segue started with us talking about collections data and how putting it online did or did not help increase audience use/awareness/appreciation of the collection and what an online audience was.  Should online efforts exist to “drive traffic” to the physical museum, or is there value in providing a service to an audience who will never set foot in the building? Comfortingly, we all agreed that online audiences counted, provided the museum had something of value to give. We’ve both tried giving visitors access to subsets of the data in our collections databases, and found that they aren’t very successful. Those systems were designed around the needs of a specialist audience (the staff) and are full of shorthand, cryptic references, and little in the way of visuals. Both institutions are working to improve on the work our predecessors have done, but it’s hard when the institution doesn’t see the collection as a core part of the soul of the museum.

The cycle
It was very revealing to hear Jen and others discuss the history of the collection at BCM and how it has risen and fallen in importance over the decades.  The same thing has happened to us during my tenure at MOS and I imagine it’s pretty universal. Directors come and go, initiatives appear, staff and institutional memory are constantly leaving, and through it all (hopefully) the collection remains.

When I was a wee bairn, I can recall visiting the Children’s Museum at it’s old home in Jamaica Plain in an old mansion. And there were tons of objects to encounter, as well as things to do. During Mike Spock’s tenure, they were busy inventing hands on learning, and the collection took a back seat for awhile. Now, they’re on the far side of major expansion, and given my experience watching others go through this cycle they’re due for a period of retrenchment. And opportunity to find new uses for existing assets like collections.

Doubtless we’ll pick up some of the topic again at the July Drinking About Museums. Are you coming?

Don’t plan it, just do it
One of the most important learning about the event was that it required very little organization and planning. Loren sent an email with enough of a topic (collections) to give the event some structure. She held it over lunch so people could actually come. And it was a successful professional event. Everybody met new people and the exchange was enough that we started talking about the next get together before we’d even finished the first one.  If you’ve got more than one museum in your area, you should try it.