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.

Word.

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.
Ha!

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

http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/

SFMOMA ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR EXTENSIVE OFF-SITE PROGRAMMING BEGINNING SUMMER 2013

http://www.sfmoma.org/about/about_news/932

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

http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/07/software-as-scaffolding-and-motivation-and-meaning-the-how-and-why-of-crowdsourcing/

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

http://www.museion.ku.dk/2011/02/a-manifesto-for-creating-science-technology-and-medicine-exhibitions/

The Trickster Museum

http://www.museion.ku.dk/2012/06/the-trickster-museum/

MuseTrain: We have some suggestions…

http://www.musetrain.org/

Walker Art Center

http://www.walkerart.org/

Bumpy rides and dead-end streets

http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2011/07/05/bumpy-rides-and-dead-end-streets/#more-597

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

http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/03/27/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?

http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/05/blueprint-book-club-part-1-how-do-you.html

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4 responses to “Making a museum from scratch: Part Six

  1. Pingback: An exhibition is an essay in three dimensions « museum geek

  2. Coming late to the party and thanks to Jane Sledge to leading me to Ed Rodley.

    I start with Neil Postman’s notion that each museums exists to answer the question: What does it mean to be human? The experience of the museum provides an answer to this question for human beings who visit, online and onsite and off site.

    What is the difference between a collection of objects/specimens and a museum collection? A museum collection must have both the physical thing and useful information about the thing. There are exceptions — Smithsonian owns the Moon Rover which is still on the moon and not coming back, etc. Curatorial choice and disciplinary judgment is exercised. Issues of quality come into play. Information is systemically organized and made available for use by human beings in many ways.

    Must a museum own collections? Obviously not. How many children’s museums are there? Sci tech museums? For these museums (and for the art museums which don’t collect) the experience is the real thing.

    Yeah, I wholly support the idea of a radically transparent museum for business practice and internal process but I also want to argue for mystery, magic, private places to reflect and maybe canoodle, and personal experiences which no one else gets. I think there is room in the museum world for what Jim Collins calls the brilliance of AND. Being accountable for collections AND making them accessible is hard and maybe more expensive, but possible and much more interesting.

    I am surprised that we are at part six of this new museum and we haven’t mentioned who is going to work every day — how, whom, and when to hire. How will our values of transparency (and what other values) be communicated in the hiring process? Where will people work while developing this new museum? What about the question of scale? How do we balance the magic with what metrics? We’ve discussed a dialogue with our audience but nothing about our funders. Who might they be and how might we address them?

    I look forward to the rest of this story.

  3. Ed, I am so glad that my ideas about the museum exhibition as being akin to an album resonated. Although it’s now a number of years since I left the music industry, I still regularly find my way into conversations with young musicians who might have great songs, but cannot seem to connect them to an audience. Many cannot find their way onto the radio, or into the sphere of interest of record labels. And very often, it’s because they cannot distance the creative act of creating the music with the act of selling that music (and I don’t even mean in a financial sense, I mean in the sense of selling their music as an idea, of connecting their sounds to the people who will be interested in them). And it seems to me that this is process we are talking about here. How do you connect your exhibition with the communities that will become invested in it, and champion it? How do the people that your work will really connect with know it’s for them? How can they begin to identify themselves with your museum and see it as being a part of their life?

    This idea is something the MuseTrain manifesto addresses, with it’s points that “Museums are building relationships with people. And objects. And ideas.” and “This relationship isn’t a one-time first date, it’s a lifelong experience. Treat it as such.”

    Matt Popke has made some interesting points on my post about exhibitions as essays in three dimensions, looking at inviting the public to be part of the process of exhibition production.

    http://museumgeek.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/an-exhibition-is-an-essay-in-three-dimensions/

  4. Pingback: Digital skills and staff development | Thinking about museums

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