Monthly Archives: May 2012

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?

Next Drinking About Museums: Boston – Thursday, June 7th @ Colonial Inn, Concord

Flickr image by Mr Kael

Howdy, friends!

We’re continuing our ambitious agenda of museum visits followed by drinking, and this month, we’re moving out into the ‘burbs, this time to Lincoln, MA, and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.  Their new Gary Webb show will be up and our hostess, Jennifer Schmitt  is hoping we might do a bit of  brainstorming about how deCordova might employ digital technologies in their future plans. Bring your thinking caps!

We’ll be at deCordova at 4:30PM looking for you.  DM me (@erodley) or Jenn (@bantryhill) if you get lost or delayed.

Afterwards, we will adjourn to The Colonial Inn in Concord for refreshments. It’s a short drive from deCordova, so leave yourself transit time. If you can’t join us for the museum part, come meet us in Concord! Burgers and beer will be had and more conversation will follow!

June 7th, 4:30PM
deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
51 Sandy Pond Road
Lincoln, MA 01773

drinks following at 6PM 
Concord’s Colonial Inn
48 Monument Sq.
Concord, MA 01742

Please join us for part or all of the festivities!

Making a museum from scratch: Part Two – inspirational readings

The comments on Part Two have been really fascinating to read and take in.  Addressing your feedback has been very important to me, so Part Three is still cooking. And a core part of that practice is finding other information in the world to help make a point, provide examples, or provoke assumptions. Seemingly everything coming onto my screen this week has had relevance to this exercise, so I thought I’d pass along some of the background reading I’d been doing while writing the next post.

New models
1) Nina Simon’s latest book club subject on her Museum 2.0 blog  is “Blueprint” the fascinating chronicle of the abortive attempt to create a Dutch Museum of National History.  It’s a great read, and I’m looking forward to the discussion.

2) In the same vein, Science Gallery, Dublin has posted an open call for “GAME” their new exhibition on the future of play. I haven’t been (yet) but I’m intrigued by Science Gallery’s  vision, to be “a dynamic new model for public engagement at the interface between science and the arts.” Among the differences, they tout five factors:

  1. Our flexibility – five dynamic, changing programmes per year, with no permanent exhibition;
  2. Our focus on 15 – 25 year olds as our core target audience bridging high school, university and early stage career;
  3. Our open call process – Science Gallery crowd-sources its installations and events on broad themes linking science, technology and the arts;
  4. Our fresh approach to connecting the university and the city –  bringing university research groups, staff and students into dialogue with the arts and creative community and the public; and
  5. Our Leonardo Group – 50 inspirational individuals drawn from the local creative community of scientists, artists, engineers and entrepreneurs who feed ideas into the development of Science Gallery exhibitions and events.

No permanent exhibition? The whole place becomes whatever the current exhibition is? Very interesting…

New ways of being
3) Rich Cherry tweeted a great nugget from Seth Godin called, . “The quickest way to get things done and make change”  that also bears on our discussions

“Not the easiest, but the quickest:
Don’t demand authority.
Eagerly take responsibility.
Relentlessly give credit.”

Easy to write. Much harder to live, but if they could baked into the DNA of a new organization, how might those sentiments express themselves?

4) Following on the call to eschew demanding authority, Maria Popova posted a short review of a book on on storytelling and the search for meaning. “The Spirituality of Imperfection” The title alone was enough to interest me, but what caught my eye and made me add it to this list was Popova’s assertion that the book “is really about cultivating our capacity for uncertainty, for mystery, for having the right questions rather than the right answers.”

Living and working in an institution that is very concerned with both “being right” and getting visitors to ask the right questions, this book seems like it’ll be getting added to my list at the bookstore soon. So many modern museuological concerns, like the authority crisis, the (mis)appropriation of curation, participatory culture, and more, all relate to this need to both know, and be “right.”

5) This notion of being in the storytelling business amplifies something Seb Chan has posted on Fresh and New(er). We’ve been talking for some time about the lack of magic in museum exhibitions, particularly science museums. Go read “On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling” and read it all the way through, because Seb’s saves his best questions for the very end.

6) Turning data into information is one way museums tell their stories. Mia Ridge tweeted this little gem that goes right to the heart of so much of what being an institution with a collection is like nowadays.

We can propagate huge data sets, but can we contextualize them so that anybody else who’s not already an expert might find value in them?

7) Both Janet Carding and Mia Ridge forwarded along this provocation by Hadrian Ellory van Dekker, Head of Collections at the Science Museum, called ‘What are Science Museums for’  where he takes apart a dominant paradigm in my part of the field about how “problematic” collections are. What is interesting is that he doesn’t bemoan interactive exhibits as usurpers. Instead, he problematizes the whole perceived dichotomy and ends up saying, “Science centre or science museum? Why should we have to choose? Any science museum, fortunate enough to possess a collection of significant and historic objects, quite simply has to be both.” Collections-based or interactive doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition.

Truth.

7) Lastly, I can’t point to it yet, but talking with Koven Smith about his upcoming MuseumNext talk on “the Kinetic Museum” has been enormously helpful to me.  Hopefully it will appear in some form online so I can link to it.

Part Three is coming soon!