Making a museum from scratch: Part Two

In Part One, I posed a pretty big question, “How would you make a museum from scratch?” and dove right in to discussing audiences. It is such a big topic, I decided to take the plunge and hope that some of you would be willing to go along, and lo! you did! A number of you though, quite rightly said, “Whoa! Ed! Back off, man! Your assumptions don’t make sense to me.” So before I swim out any further over my head, a little more context. This post could probably be called Part One, the Less Sketchy Version, rather than Part Two, but so be it…

There are collections, and there are collections

One of my reasons for picking an archaeological collection as the basis for this experiment is that the processes that result in the creation of scientific collections and art collections are very different and I wanted to be able to explore that.  Archaeology is a destructive practice. To study an archaeological site, you have to destroy it. When you’re done, you can’t put it all back so another archaeologist can come in re-excavate that site to test your hypothesis. It’s a one shot affair, so there is tremendous pressure to preserve as much as possible, since that will likely be the only surviving remains of that site. So while you might think of an archeological collection as only the objects or artifacts collected during an excavation or survey, a collection actually comprises many other classes of materials with scientific value. These would include biofacts (pollen, seeds, plant and animal remains) soil samples, radiocarbon and other dating samples, and more.

So to Gretchen’s question in the first post expressing amazement at the size of the collection, when your collection includes these other classes of material, 200,000 objects isn’t all that big. For my thesis research, I was looking at 17th and 18th century shipwreck sites, and the ammunition totals alone from those sites would be in the tens to hundreds of thousands of objects. Granted, they are small and indistinguishable objects, but there you go.  From looking at these collections of indistinguishable, individually uninteresting objects, one could make inferences about the size and character of the firearms present on these ships, even though the weapons themselves were largely disintegrated. Would a general public audience ever want to come see 88,000 lead musket balls? Probably not, unless you did something very artistic with them. Do they have value to another audience? Absolutely.  The same applies to many natural history collections. The public might not find much interest in forty seven study skins of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), while an ornithologist might need a larger sample to answer his or her question.

To (hopefully) address Linda’s confusion over the image of stacks of boxes, and others’ concerns over size, let’s say our collection of stuff comprises 200,000 archaeological objects. Of these, over half are going to be Ziplock bags and boxes full of stuff (soil, greebly bits, and otherwise undistinguished cultural remains like potsherds and the ammunition from my earlier example). Of the remaining objects that the layperson might recognize as “artifacts”, the total is probably in the low thousands. To use Koven’s triage metaphor, the ones that are worthy of being part of the global conversation probably only number in the high hundreds, maybe the low thousands.

The distinction between a museum and a collection

I love the comments from Part One probing at the distinction between whether this pile of stuff is a museum or a collection, because they aren’t the same thing. Amanda asked some excellent focusing questions which I think it might be helpful to address individually to help us move along:

“Is this a truly unique/valuable collection, and if so, to whom – scholars, people of a particular interest group, people of a particular area, people of a particular cultural heritage?”

I want to think expansively and really tease out a lot of issues, so let’s yes to this question. Your relevant experts have declared the collection “important” both to a local public audience through what it says about their area, and to a potentially broader audience because of historical importance. It is interesting to archaeologists and other specialists for reasons they will explain to you in great detail, which you may or may not fully understand, though you appreciate them.

“Will this collection achieve greater value on its own, as a niche display, or will it add value to an encyclopaedic collection at another institution?”

Now here’s an interesting question! Does it make sense to start yet another museum, with all the concomitant costs involved, or would it be better to send it to an existing museum? Rainey Tisdale asked much the same question via Twitter and it’s an excellent fundamental question to answer definitively. I imagine many of us have encountered institutions that were founded with the best of intentions, which nonetheless couldn’t construct a viable, long-term value proposition to their intended audience(s). To me, this question also goes along with some of Koven’s triage questions. Is this worth making a museum out of? If not, maybe you have a roving collection that makes occasional appearances at schools or public events. Maybe you have a storefront museum. Maybe your “museum” exists primarily online, and only occasionally manifests itself in a physical sense. I want to come back to all thee scenarios, as well as Jasper’s idea of literally taking the collection out on the street and seeing what people resonate with.

Again, to move the experiment along, I’m going to say yes to this question. You’ve done your due diligence and looked around, talked to lots of colleagues at other museums and collections, and arrived at the conclusion that your pile of stuff could reach its highest potential to be part of the global conversation in it’s own context, rather than being added to an existing museum’s collection.

“Is this collection sexy/applicable enough to really support a ‘broader mission’ beyond ‘learn about cool stuff’?”

A fascinating question, requiring some real soul-searching! This goes along with the previous question about achieving value. How do we use collections of stuff to create value of some sort? Suse also got at this point with her question about whether we were making a museum from scratch, or making a collection awesome and useful to its audiences. Even if all of the conditions above are answered in the affirmative, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have a museum. We might have an archive, or an educational institution devoted to teaching history through this archaeological lens.  What makes a collection a museum?

To me, the answer to Amanda’s question comes down to curation. Is there an obvious connection between a collection of discrete objects and the global conversation we are always having; “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?” For me, the best museums let me walk around inside those questions and walk out with a different understanding than when I entered. If the connection can’t be made obviously, and quickly, then the answer to the “broader mission” question would be “No.” and this exercise would turn into something different, though equally fascinating.

As the final brick in the foundation, let’s say that this collection has such obvious connections to big issues that it’s obvious to you that you could construct an experience that would be a clear benefit to a public audience, a more diffuse audience interested in history, and a specialist audience.  This experience would be based on a subset of the collection of objects that is interesting and discrete enough that you feel they need their own manifestation in the world as a museum.  The rest of the collection would need to be stored and cared for its scientific value, but is probably never going to excite much public interest.

How’s that for a better framework to talk about missions?

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22 responses to “Making a museum from scratch: Part Two

  1. I love the question about the difference between a museum and a collection, partly because it has a lot of potential for how we think about collections online – if we chuck everything up online regardless of how interesting or otherwise it is, is it a collection rather than a museum? Extrapolating, can an online catalogue ever be a really good *museum* experience? (By catalogue I mean the full list of hundreds of thousands of objects, usually with the majority of records limited to tombstone data and possibly an image by the sheer scale of the collection.)

    But while I definitely think ‘curation’ is one difference between a museum and a collection, ‘interpretation’ is also a vital part of helping a collection give you new questions or an ever-so-slightly shifted view of the world.

    • Your post on the 800 Roman oil lamps is great reading. I’ll have to add it to the list of readings! Regarding interpretation vs curation, how would you distinguish the two?

      • Thanks! It’s funny thinking back to my work with archaeological collections, it seems a lifetime ago. It turns out one of the archives I used to work with is the largest in the world (http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2012/4/museum-of-london-earns-title-for-largest-archaeological-archive-41292/) so that’s probably affected how I think about dealing with such large-scale collections.

        And very roughly, I think of curation as the act of acquiring, assembling, researching and cataloguing objects for a collection, and interpretation as providing information about the object – it may be derived from the curation and would always be linked to it, so the lines are blurry. But I suppose I also think that the interpretation of an individual object can be written without taking into account its context in the wider collection, where curation is intrinsically linked to context-in-the-collection, or at least a sub-set of it.

        @Suse – I don’t think I said enough to be antithetical too? Perhaps I should be more careful about asking rhetorical questions. Which is also a response to Rob – asking questions like ‘can an online catalogue ever be a really good *museum* experience’ is an attempt to question assumptions and clarify terms. In an ideal world, each object would have enough information to be interesting on its own, but at least in the UK (for history collections), we’re still digitising tombstone-level catalogue information, let alone full records for each object.

        Visible storage is definitely useful, but I guess in my head it’s not quite as much a museum experience. Though again, it probably depends on scale and style – the Powerhouse’s Castle Hill public display is very different to LAARC’s display of ceramics and glass, etc, but they serve very different audiences with different assumptions about how much information they need to understand the objects.

        Which in turn means coming back to the question about the difference 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?

      • Very quickly, because I should be doing a million other things – there’s a big difference in the archaeology I’ve worked on, and the archaeology you’d be talking about – I’ve worked in the UK and Turkey so I’ve not had to deal with issues around displaced people and colonisation. I’m still thinking through how that might change things, but it certainly complicates the idea of displaying objects in foyers or windows of modern buildings over their find location (as discussed on twitter). But (thinking as an Australian who grew up on colonised land) displaying objects on their original location has possibilities too, in reminding people that there were earlier inhabitants of that land.

  2. Is your collection relevant to a community or an indigenous group whose ancestors inhabited the area in which is was excavated? I ask because the institution I work for, the New Mexico Dept. of Cultural Affairs, is an outgrowth of the Museum of New Mexico, which was founded in 1909–prestatehood–by a group of archaeologists of the American Southwest including the founding director, Edgar L. Hewitt, an early advocate of building community-based museums and visitors centers near excavations sites. For whatever reason, perhaps for the convenience of researchers and collectors, for the most part his vision was not realized, and much of New Mexico’s artifactual heritage ended up concentrated in collections in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, far from their places of origin. It is hard to imagine the impoverishment of communities robbed of their material culture–spiritually, economically, and educationally–nor how they are enriched when it is returned to them. So, assuming your collection is culturally relevant to a community, make sure that it is digitized (perhaps in 3D) and made accessible online in a beautiful virtual space, but that there is also a physical space in the community, or on or near the excavation site, to house and interpret the artifacts. The local community might need support from a university or large museum. Institutions working on virtual repatriation projects have experience creating good cooperative agreements (http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012/papers/virtual_repatriation_and_the_application_progr).

    • Great point, Mimi. Another piece of the audience puzzle I overlooked. Let’s say that the collection is relevant to the local population, which is part of the reason that it is wherever it is. You also get bonus points for being the first person to reference a MW paper! I was wondering how long it would be before someone did that.

  3. Ed,

    I really like that you’ve started with the premise of creating an archaeological museum from a dig. This allows for your fictional folks to shape the museum around the dig process, including the labor required to find those 200K objects, and then the intellectual work involved in puzzling out what those bits and pieces mean in that specific place and in a greater context. You literally have a slice of life for a group of people represented in that collection, and for the archaeologists as well. And if you create spaces to talk about the dig -> preservation -> exhibition, there are many different stories to tell and that together they open up the process of doing this type of museum work, archaeology, and history, in addition to talking about what can be gleaned about daily life of these specific people and how that relates to bigger themes.

    And in the process of designing and building the physical spaces, you can start to get some of that collections data out in the digital world to build an audience before the brick and mortar space exists who might give the staff ideas on interpretation.

  4. Hi, Ed, thanks for so carefully addressing everyone’s questions and comments. I wanted to clarify, however, that my question was not about the size of the collection but about its provenance. It’s related as well to the comment above from Mimi. If this archeological trove is from the community in which you plan to start your museum from scratch, then my questions are mostly answered. But if these 200,000 objects come from other countries or communities, then I think due digigance, in addition to asking about the worth and attracting power of the collection, is contacting the communities or countries of the collections’ origin to see if they have rights to/interest in reclaiming some or all of this collection. This would have the triage effect that has been mentioned, but more important, it would show that your museum is indeed part of the global community and that it recognizes and is sensitive to the rights of communities and peoples whose heritage resides elsewhere and who are interested in reclaiming it. I think Mimi’s suggestions along this line are great. Again, thanks for initiating this discussion.

  5. Great thoughts about the museum’s collection. To answer Mia’s question, yes, I think an online collection can be a good museum experience – though it rarely is at the moment b/c of the poor online collection management tools seen on most websites.

    In fact, I’d say that in the near future online collections *must* be good experiences, to expose new audiences to your museum’s material. A good website should function as a great exhibition/gallery in its own right.

    Thinking back to Ed’s last post, in which he discussed audiences, the website for this Museum From Scratch is a key tool for addresses questions those audiences have and convincing them to visit the physical space.

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  7. Ok. Long comment coming. There are a couple of ideas that are mashing up in my head in response to the new parameters you’ve set, and more general questions about value, transparency and the limitations of physical collections.

    The recently opened MAS | Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp has a visible storage area that houses about 180,000 artefacts from the collection. (http://bit.ly/LwhKOY) I wonder whether this kind of approach could similarly work with this museum (conservation issues notwithstanding). 88,000 musket balls or forty seven study skins of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) might not make compelling content on their own, but in the context of an open-storage collection, could become more so. Such objects, then, could be explored both in their aggregate (look at all our musket balls!) and singularly (this is why they are interesting).

    A continuum of transparency could similarly place conservation and research practices into open or public environments, so the public not only see the objects that are interesting, but have the opportunity to learn out more about the processes that surround them. New research could regularly be highlighted that explores both what is being looked at, but also why.

    The museum could almost be turned inside out, exposing that which is often hidden. In some ways, this takes the ideas of openness about the collection which we’ve been talking about online, and brings it into the physical space. Of course, such a process would require a lot of thought and planning, and it could be quite confronting for staff. But the museum would then be about both the collection and about museology, which could be quite interesting.

    This morning, Jim Croft Tweeted a link to a very interesting post against the infantalisation of the natural history museum. (http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2012/05/against-the-infantilization-of-the-natural-history-museum.html) The whole piece is interesting, but this section stands out:
    “The project of exhaustively collecting and describing the basic kinds of large animal, and analyzing and displaying these animals’ bodily parts and systems, is a project that gained momentum in the late Renaissance and that was largely completed by the end of the 19th century. Like, say, realist painting in the Western tradition, it is a project that has a bounded history (indeed the two histories fairly closely overlap one another). This means that an alpaca intestine displayed in formaldehyde is a sample of a part of a South American camelid; but it is also an artefact of a modern European knowledge project. In this respect a proper natural history museum, that is to say an unreconstructed adult natural history museum, is really two museums at once: it is a museum of nature, but also a museum of the history of a very singular attempt to know nature quite literally inside-out.”

    Maybe if you were building an archeological museum from scratch, you could build a museum that helped its audience understand the subject area inside out, rather than just showing them the collected highlights?

    • BTW – I realise I have written an almost antithetical response to Mia’s. And I don’t actually know that my approach could work at all. It was just an idea I wanted to play with.

    • I think this thread has touched on some really useful concepts that will advance the project. I’d like to try out on you the idea that there are a couple of related continua; the collections-museum continuum, and the curation-interpretation continuum, and these actually overlap. So I don’t think that Suse’s and Mia’s replies actually contradict at all. A third continuum that keeps popping into my head is one that runs from getting lost in data to being told a story. The Smith essay Suse posted is a great example of someone who only wants to explore on their own ranting against “infantilization”. Obviously there are impassioned voices out there arguing exactly the opposite. Can one institution serve both?

      The idea of a continuum of transparency also appeals greatly to me, especially as it relates to the visitor experience, because in many ways, that already the way exhibitions are designed. To construct a narrative, you have to pare down, hide extraneous matter, highlight the connections that advance your story. Whereas, with collections most museums (Smithsonian American Art being a counter-example) hide their collection and curation activities.

      Is there a way to acknowledge both the collection and exhibition aspects of a museum in ways that accommodate the audience fro whom those experiences work best?

      • The three continuum’s that you’ve identified seem to me to be similar to the questions that emerge from putting collections online too. The reason I like the idea of looking to make the physical museum more actually transparent is that it would seem to draw from the ideas and values we keep stressing online. Koven asks “What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?” (http://kovenjsmith.com/archives/468) Nina Simon draws from Web2.0 ideas to design participatory museum experiences. So what are the different values of the web (transparency? openness? customisable experiences?) that we could apply to a museum being made from scratch? And would such ideas make for a good museum experience?

    • I wonder about creating transparency in the collection by doing a Google Museum street view type of experience. I imagine our huge vaults, and the possibility of “walking” through the vaults, being able to click into and explore the collection virtually. It would open up the collection, manage some of the conservation issues, etc.

      I bring this up mostly because of the inaccessibility of our collection by the Indigenous communities that many of the items originate from. Many of the reservations in Minnesota are 4-5 hours from the state History Center, but a digital walk-through experience would create much more transparency than the standard online cataloging system.

  8. Okay, I’m over the piles of boxes…but I’m heading off in the same direction as several of the other commenters above. If, for instance, it is a collection related to a local community, possibly an indigenous one, then why not, in some form or another, as Jasper suggests, let the community decide. An amazing example of this is the Makah Museum, on the Olympic Peninsula. The story of how newly discovered archaelogical material became not just a collection, but a meaningful museum for the tribe is told in the book Voices of a Thousand People: The Makah Cultural and Research Center. And although I visited the museum possibly a decade ago, I still remember an opening label…something about that these objects are “our thunder and our lightening.” Can that be what we aspire to…to have objects with real meaning to our communities in places where they can see, understand, learn and connect with them?

  9. Ed, loving the last 2 blog posts. As the Director, Design + New Media & Collections for a new national museum not yet open (Canadian Museum for Human Rights), without an existing collection (well, we have a modest collection now built over the past 2 years), based on an intangible subject matter (a departure from your archeological based example) your subject is incredibly relevant to me. In some cases, like my own, our collection is heavily digital (although we will have physical collections) and can be a case where both the exhibition and the collection exist to acknowledge and respond to the audience. The collection is largely based on oral history and artefacts to support the story (versus stories about the artefacts), while the exhibition is a program that exhibits the stories and lessons. The entire venues offered by the museum are to encourage reflection and dialogue. It is participative – both in respect to the collection, and the exhibitions. And beyond that, to the programming (public, educational, etc.). Back to your first post and the role of media-based technology and building the museum from scratch, well, this is my life every day. Basically though, media and technology are, in my opinion, great facilitators. When employed properly they can help meet the expectations of audience(s), 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). Looking forward to seeing your MCN paper. I’ve submitted something along the lines of the implications of building a national museum from scratch. There might be a good team up at some point…

    • Hey Corey,

      Thanks for chiming in on a subject that isn’t an abstract experiment for you. I think you’ve got an even harder challenge, since you’re starting with an abstract concept and having to incarnate it. I’d be very interested to hear your plans for raising the public’s awareness of the museum before the physical structure opens.

      The MCN Program Committee is going to be starting in soon on assembling the program for the conference, so I look forward to reading your proposal!

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  11. Pingback: Making a museum from scratch: Part Five | Thinking about museums

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