Tag Archives: History

Real transformation ain’t easy

So, here I am in Seattle at the American Alliance of Museums conference, and I’m not finishing my presentation. Instead, I’m getting very excited for the first couple of CODE|WORDS essays, which should launch this week! The introduction is already on Medium if you haven’t seen it. It’s been a long haul, but we’re starting, and I’m very excited to read what our friends have to say. Just talking to the authors has been enriching and good exercise for looking at things from fresh vantage points.

Getting out of the “business as usual” mindset is never easy, but vital for thinking about how museums should organize themselves to best fulfill their missions in the current century. It’s an evergreen topic that I wrote about extensively a couple of years ago in the Museum from Scratch series.  There I wondered what would a born-dgital museum look like. Who would work there and what would they do? The whole idea was to step outside the usual strategic planning model that takes the current organization as the starting point and suggests chenges to that structure. Great for incremental change, not so good for dramatic, systemic change. Two recently published reports lend their support to this idea, and are essential reading for anybody interested in museums and the future.

‘Bolt-on’ digital strategies vs digital ‘transformation’

The first is a Forrester Research report titled “the State of Digital Business 2014″. In it, the author says that a majority of CEOs favor ‘bolt-on’ digital strategies over digital ‘transformation’ and that overcoming this mindset is going to be a key factor in businesses success in the coming years. I reckon the same will hold true for museums.

The study itself is obviously a paid product, but Jessica Davies at The Drum summarizes some of the key findings of Nigel Fenwick, who polled 1,591 senior business leaders in the UK and US. Fenwick finds that the disconnects between the marketing and technology sides of businesses are wide neough that they signal a “digital strategy execution crisis” in many companies. Sound familiar, museum folks?

Some key takeaways:

A Bolt-On Digital strategy will Not Be enough In 2015 and beyond:

While marketing has been the principal driver of digital initiatives up to 2014, going forward firms must take a more comprehensive approach to digital transformation and avoid simply bolting digital onto the existing business.

CMOs Must Partner with CIOs To Transform Toward a Digital Business:

Digital business requires both digital customer experience and digital operational excellence. Without the CIO as a digital partner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) will tend to approach digital as a bolt-on approach to customer engagement.

CIOs must embrace digital as a core technology imperative:

CIOs must shift their focus toward systems that support the firm’s ability to win, serve, and retain customers. Digital technologies are central to this shift. The ability of the technology management team to embrace digital will shape the future of the CIO.

Innovation and the New York Times
The really, really big news though comes from the newspaper industry and the leak of an internal 96 page strategy report commissioned by the New York Times that frames the challenges of disruption on legacy institutions better than anything I’ve ever read. It’s a long read, but well worth it. Obviously an internal document, it lays out the kinds of turf battles, internal confusions, and working at cross-purposes that happens in any big enterprise. Really, read it!

Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab wrote a great synopsis of the report that’s a good starting place, especially for unpacking some of the insider language that the report uses. Benton calls it “one of the key documents of this media age. It’s an astonishing look inside the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital” It’s that important.

I’m still going through with a fine tooth comb, but here are some of things that have leapt out at me.

Pg 4

That means taking more time to assess the landscape and chart the road ahead, rethink print-centric traditions, use experiments and data to inform decisions, hire and empower the right digital talent and work hand in hand with reader-focused departments on the business side.

Pg 5

It should be stated explicitly that there is no single transformational idea in this report. Transformation can be a dangerous word in our current environment because it suggests a shift from one solid state to another; it implies there is an end point. Instead, we have watched the dizzying growth of smart phones and tablets, even as we are still figuring out the web. We have watched the massive migration of readers to social media even as we were redesigning our home page.

Pg23

Audience Development is the work of expanding our loyal and engaged audience. It is ahout getting more people to read more of our journalism. The work can be broken down into steps like discovery (how we package and distribute our journalism), Promotion (how we call attention to our journalism) and connection (how we create a two-way relationship with readers that deepens their loyalty)

Pg 32

A list of best practices for experimentation
• Launch efforts quickly, then iterate. We often hold back stories for publication, as we should, because they’re “not quite there yet.” Outside our journalism, though, we can adopt the “minimal viable product” model, which calls for launching something in a more basic form so that we can start getting feedback from users and improve it over time.

• Set goals and track progress. Every new project should be launched with a specific goal and metric for success. In many cases, our main goal is high-quality journalism. But readership and engagement are usually important, too; All managers should be clear on what a new initiative is aiming to accomplish. Editors in charge of experiments should track their progress in real time.

• Reward experimentation. Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at The Times. We must reward people who show initiative, even when their experiments fail. Share lessons from both successes and failures.

• We need to do a better job of communicating our digital goals, and sharing what we know about best practices to achieve them. No project should be declared a success, or shuttered, without a debrief on what we’ve learned, so that we can apply those insights more broadly.

• Kill off mediocre efforts. To free up resources for new initiatives, we need to be quicker and smarter about pulling resources from efforts that aren’t working. And we must do it in a way that is transparent so that people understand the reasons behind the decision, so that they will be willing to experiment again.

• Plan for “version 2.0″ and beyond. Often, the resource plan for new projects stops at launch. As we learn from readers about what is working and not working, we have to continue our efforts to refine and develop our new initiatives.

• Make it easier to launch an experiment than to block one. At many companies, people are able to test ideas on a small percentage of users with mid-level approval. Elsewhere, you must write a memo about why an experiment should not happen in order to block it. Our journalistic standards always need to be protected, but tradition alone shouldn’t be a justification for blocking experiments.

Pg 47

We need to explicitly urge reporters and editors to promote their work and we need to thank those who make the extra effort. Interest in and aptitude for social media should not be required – just as we don’t expect every reporter to be a great writer – but it should be a factor. And we need to help journalists raise their profiles on social by sharing best practices. Our journalists want maximum readership and impact but many don’t know how to use social media effectively. Content promotion needs to become more integrated into each desk’s daily workflow.

Pg 58

To become more of a digital-first newsroom, we have to look hard at our traditions and push ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. Too often we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that the solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is just around the corner.

Reading this and looking back at the Museum from Scratch posts lead me to scribble a bunch of questions as I was reading the Times report. These are in no particular order, but I need to get them written down so they won’t get lost.

  • Why don’t we treat Internet access as a utility? Whatever the FCC says, it’s like water and electricity and needs to be as ubiquitous and as essential to the building functioning.
  • Should there be an IT dept that functions like current ones? Nobody tells you how to file your papers, why should they tell you how to file your docs? Ppl will take care of ther own devices.
  • Why don’t we treat the digital artifacts of the work (email, files, etc…) as being worthy of being collected and preserved?
  • How do we recoginze the people who we serve? In modern born-digital musuems, the engagement economy exist for both onsite and online visitors. Programs will have to encourage deeper levels of engagement and connection w the museum. Visitors will be encouraged to become closer to the museum and rewarded as they do.
  • How do we make the value statement pervade everything we do, and make sure everyone knows it?
  • How do we make audience engagement part of everybody’s job? There’s a great urban legend about an AMerican president visiting Johnson Space Center during the Moon Race and asking a janitor what he was doing. The jnaitor allegly replied “I’m helping send a man to the Moon.” That’s the kind of place we strive for.
  • How does continuous professional development occur and become a performance metric for staff?  “How have you improved?” and “What have you learned?” shouldbe questions we should be asked.
  • How do we make the ladder for staff development is clear for as many as possible?
  • How do we bake time for reflective practice into the institution?
  • How do we keep what’s important safe, and let the rest of it be somebody else’s worry? The cloud is nice, in the short-term. In the long-term, the cloud doesn’t give a shit about you or your mission. Gmail, Evernote, etc… are great…until they change, and they will, and you won’t be ready. Google is famous for relentlessly pushing new services and then killing them.

More to come! Now back to my presentation…

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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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
http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2012/06/our-broken-economic-model.html

Paula Bray, Ask more questions: bring your audience into the decision-making
http://paulabray.com/2012/06/07/ask-more-questions-bring-your-audience-into-the-decision-making/

Museums and visitor created journeys
http://paulabray.com/2012/05/01/museums-and-visitor-created-journeys/

Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson, Duende: a story about digital strategy [http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/05/22/duende-a-story-about-digital-strategy/]

Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff, A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/05/a_simple_tool_you_need_to_mana.html

Seb Chan, Freshandnew(er), Sleep No More
http://www.freshandnew.org/2012/05/sleep-more-magic-immersive-storytelling/

Additional readings

Harold Jarche has an interesting post on “pull” learning versus “push” learning [http://www.jarche.com/2012/06/pulling-informal-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” [http://www.museumsassociation.org/comment/30052012-why-the-google-art-project-is-important] that is a good summation of a lot of the issues we’ve discussed.

Making a museum from scratch: Part Four

What does the mission of a radically transparent museum look like?

In Part Three of this series, I proposed that our museum be radically transparent, that we organize it around the notion that everything should be transparent unless it needs to be otherwise.  I also proposed that it invert the current pyramid of transparency of museum practice (exhibits & curation=most transparent/collections & conservation =least transparent). Both ideas I find very interesting and a little daunting and many of you seemed to agree.

In this post, I’d like to get a little more deeply into the ideas and concerns people raised about transparency and mission, and propose some ideas that will make up the mission of our imaginary museum, so we can start to work out how it might be put together.

Transparency is a way to accrue public value 

Suse Cairns provided a great quote from Megan Cook’s Delivering Public Value Through Transparency, making clear that transparency is a means to an end.

“By taking a public value perspective, the notion of pursuing transparency is assessed by identifying its value (e.g. social, political, strategic, financial, ideological, etc). The end goal is to accrue public value and transparency is the means to achieve it. That is, transparency is not an end society pursues for its own sake.”

Transparency is a way to demonstrate authenticity

Rob Stein very ably got to the root of why transparency can be a good thing, namely the desire to make our ideals and mission as obvious as possible to our audiences. He said,

“In my mind, transparency is a communications tool that is based on an organization’s commitment and desire for authenticity. That desire for authenticity demands an open disclosure of good, bad, and otherwise unknown facts about how museums work. Transparency then, is a reflection of the integrity and proficiency possessed by the museum at any moment in time.”

Let’s take a moment and unpack what’s inside this desire to be authentic. Authenticity – the state of being exactly who you say you are – is also one level of abstraction from the core of the matter. The reason for a museum to value authenticity is because what a museum does is valuable and important.  The ideals of the institution should make clear its value proposition, and therefore we want to build it in such a way that it’s processes and products are visible and comprehensible to our audiences, so that they too can see how we are delivering on our ideals and being exactly who we say we are; in other wordsauthentic.

Transparency is a way to generate social capital

This puts a heavy burden on the institution. To be radically transparent (or radically authentic, as Rob calls it) is to be willing to have most every decision weighed by our audience against our mission. Who we hire, what we exhibit, what we publish and how – all become evidence anyone can use for or against us.

So why do it? The benefit to our museum is that it helps establish our presence in the reputation economy by generating social capital. As Rob pointed out, “social capital has a direct impact on the viability and financial health of our organizations. Rather than being driven only by supply and demand, social capital is accrued by building honest relationships with a community.”  Or communities, both physical and virtual. Social capital, according to The Saguaro Seminar, refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"]. As institutions that depend on the philanthropy of others for their very survival, accruing social capital is a necessary first step towards viability.

Your mission, should you choose to accept

All of this goes to my initial question, “So what does a mission statement for a 21st century museum look like that takes these ideas to heart and expresses them in a radically transparent way to the staff who carry it out, and to the audiences whom the museum serves?”

Assuming, we want to seek AAM accreditation, our museum’s mission needs to embody the following:

  • The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role.
    (We exist to provide some public benefit)
  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.
    (We operate in a way that makes it easy to see how we’re fulfilling our mission. There’s that “transparent” word again!) 
  • The museum has a clear understanding of its mission and communicates why it exists and who benefits as a result of its efforts.
    (We live our mission.)
  • All aspects of the museum’s operations are integrated and focused on meeting its mission.
    (We are mission-focused.)
  • The museum’s governing authority and staff think and act strategically to acquire, develop, and allocate resources to advance the mission of the museum.
    (We are in it for the long haul.)

So, with your indulgence, I want to try to say things that would be in our imaginary museum’s mission, without getting into the chore of writing it. I think writing a generic archaeology museum’s mission is not going to be a useful exercise, and there’s a lot of ground I still want to cover.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that our museum’s mission includes (in soaring prose, of course) the following:

  • To preserve, conserve, and display the information recovered from the site (the collection).
  • To interpret the importance of site and time period in the context of world history and the present.
  • To enable scholarship, learning, and new discovery about the topic and period by making use of the collection
  • To be an asset to the community through our programs and practice (measurable because of our openness + transparency)

Back in Part One, I proposed some audiences as a way to understand how we might organize our work.  Particularly around the mission, being clear about our audiences is critical. I propose that our museum has the following three audiences:

1) The global audience
The interested layperson looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

The student looking for  looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

2) The local audience
The tourist visiting the area;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to local area. Online audience wants visit-planning info and ability to buy tickets.

The local;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to them. Online audience wants visit-planning info, especially events at museum, and ability to buy tickets.

3) The professional audience
The archaeologist looking for archaeological information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for information (metadata) as much as object info. Also PDFs of original docs/images. More valuable for research than interpretive texts. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

The museum professional looking for museum-related information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for object/subject information, as well as process information. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

It is instructive to note that all of our audiences are online, and only some of them are onsite. How will our museum meet the needs of these audiences? In the next post, I’d like to switch gears a bit and move into planning. If we were getting a museum off the ground, what would we do in the 2-3 years between starting work and opening a physical building?

I look forward to your thoughts.

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Inspirational Readings

Maria Popova posted a lovely piece on the interplay of theory and practice.  “Practice is integrating theory into our systems and living from that place.”

Thought Den posted a good summary of the MuseumNext conference in Barcelona, and I am amazed at the relevance of what went on there with what we’ve been talking about here. Take a peek at “MuseumNext condensed : bright minds in Barca”

“Duende, a story about digital strategy” is a great short post from Jasper Visser on digital strategy.  I especially like the digital engagement framework he and Jim Richardson devised. Expect to see it again.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker wrote an editorial for the (UK) Museums Association called  “Re-imagining museums: Why the Google Art Project is important for museums.” that hit precisely the same territory we’ve been covering.

In the Harvard Business Review, Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff proposed “A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation” that looks at strategic innovation, which I think is a great way of thinking about the future in the initial planning of our museum, and ensuring that we don’t just write a slightly less-archaic prescription that our successors will chafe against.

David Roth wrote a piece for Forbes that requires little introduction, “Creating a Great Culture — Your Company’s Foundational DNA” 

Which led lastly to this piece from Harvard Business Review, “How to be happier at work.” 

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?

A letter from Gibraltar

a selection of curiosities from "Museum of Science: Then and Now"

We’ll be releasing a mobile app in the Fall to accompany a new permanent exhibition on the history of the Museum. As part of the research for that, I spent a day in the Boston Athenaeum looking through their manuscripts collections for information on the Linnaean Society of New England, a predecessor of the Museum of Science that operated from 1814-1823.  One of my favorite parts of research is when you find an object or document that so neatly encompasses an era or an idea that it practically sings.  I found two at the Athenaeum, and I wanted to share one. It starts thus,

U.S.S Washington, Gibraltar Bay, Feb 18, 1817.
Mr. Shaw,
Dear Sir,
I beg leave to recommend to your care the enclosed letter & accompanying box. The box is principally filled with specimens in nat. hist. For the Linn. Soc. but as it contains some private packages, I wish it to be opened by one of the persons to whom it is directed.

This is the third time I have troubled you in this way; but I have done so, presuming on your well-known disposition to aid all endeavors, however small, to advance the cause of science in our country.  What I am able to contribute to this end is certainly very inconsiderable, but “Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus Constare magna non possunt.” ["Those things are not to be disparaged as little, without which great things cannot come into being." - St. Jerome]

I am, Sir, respectfully, yr. obedt. servt.
Ch: Folsom.

Folsom sent a series of letters to William Shaw, the vice-president of the Linnaean Society.  The letter accompanied a large box of specimens that included Roman coins, volcanic rock from Vesuvius, marine creatures, an ostrich skeleton, a chameleon he hatched from an egg, and several pages. His explanation of his collecting is classic,

“In the large box you will find a farrago of specimens in natural history, which I have collected as I could, not without expence of patience, & occasionally of money. I fear some of them may seem hardly worth notice; but they interested me at the time of collecting them, & are connected in my mind with interesting places & circumstances.”

His letters are marvelous, written in a large bold hand, and full of the kind of details about his objects that so often get lost by the time they get into collections databases.  You can almost see him in the wardroom of the Washington, looking at his instructions on how to preserve birds, trying to eviscerate an adult ostrich in his spare time.  His crew mates must have loved him!

The objects themselves are long-gone, along with the rest of the Society’s collections, so his descriptions are all that is left. Folsom goes to great pains to explain his lack of skill. Specimens are poorly preserved, or all that was left after he tried to preserve them. But his snake wasn’t just a snake. It was one he caught climbing up the rudder in Chesapeake Bay. The ostrich was a gift to the Commodore from the Bey of Tunis, which lived aboard ship til it sickened and died, apparently from eating too much rope, “which it consumed avidly.” When he autopsied it, Folsom found its stomach completely full of scraps of rope and other tidbits. Every object possesses some personal meaning for Folsom as well as value to a new museum as specimens. At an old institution, where so many of the object have outlived all the people who were associated with their collection, it’s easy to forget that they all once possessed these narratives.

I was looking for an example of the collecting strategies employed by my distant predecessors, and came up with Lieut. Folsom, much to my delight.  But who was this intrepid benefactor, and aspiring naturalist? Some sleuthing was required.

USS Washington, from an old book

In early 1817, the USS Washington, a 74 gun ship of the line built in Portsmouth, NH, was cruising the Mediterranean as the flagship of Commodore Chauncey’s squadron. Information on Folsom was hard to come by, but luckily he had a crew mate who made quite a name for himself later. The most famous member of the Washington’s crew was a teenager from Tennessee named David Farragut, who was already a seasoned veteran at age 16, and would become Admiral of the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War, where he uttered his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Midshipman Farragut’s  instructor (who would become his lifelong friend) was the ship’s Unitarian chaplain, Lieut. Charles Folsom.  Folsom served briefly aboard Washington before being named U.S. Consul at Tunis.  Upon leaving the ship, he secured an extended leave for his young friend to stay with him in Tunis and continue his study of mathematics, as well as French, Italian, Arabic and Turkish.

It’s tempting to imagine the chaplain and his midshipman collecting rocks on the beaches of the Bay of Naples, or catching lizards in the ruins of Carthage, but that’s a bit of a leap to make. More of Folsom’s papers are at the Mass. Historical Society, so someday I might have to dig a little more and see what other gems I might uncover. For now, I’ll hope the we can afford the license and duplication fees, so Lieut. Folsom’s letter can enjoyed by more people.

I do love this work.