4. Understand how your museum got here. It doesn’t need to stay ‘here’.

If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.

— Bruce Lee

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s easy to understand that we need to keep pushing ourselves and that we need to go beyond what we’ve done before. The more important quote of the two is Emerson’s and the critical word is “foolish.” Change isn’t really change if you don’t know the how or why something has been done before. Randomly asking questions and making bold assertions, while sounding good for the moment, are not approaches that lead to long-term success. And, more importantly, you set up your new ideas to appear unfounded and subject to easy ridicule. People are quick to react defensively, don’t make it easy to do so. You need to understand the past in order to know how to move forward from the past.

If you work at an art museum, why do you display art? Why do you have the collections that you do? If you’re at a science museum, why are some of your exhibits interactive and others not? If you work at a zoo or an aquarium, why is there a living collection? Generally, why do you cater to the visitors that you do? Do you value your community, your collection, or somewhere in between?

When you ask why, you have the chance to engage colleagues to understand their thinking and rationale. Once you’re able to establish some common ground, or at least understanding of why something the way it is, it’s far, far easier to do something radically different or ensure that what you’re positing doesn’t travel the same well-worn institutional path. Make change with purpose and intent.

3. Collecting and displaying are separate activities although they absolutely rely on each other.

Tension exists between departments in museums as each struggles with how to best represent the organization. In art museums, the pendulum traditionally swings between educational and curatorial departments. In science and natural history museums, the pendulum swing between research scientists and science communicators.

Your visitor doesn’t care and the reality is that these different tensions are simply different sides of similar coins. There is a need to collect, preserve, and display. Each doesn’t exist without the other and, honestly, are made weaker without the others.

If you simply collect and preserve, you might as well be a warehouse. If you simply display, you might as well be shopping mall. It’s the connection of these two — that there are valuable things to have and then relating that experience with the public that creates a compelling and unique museum experience. The best museums will place a high value on both of these activities.

2. Museums innately share those collections with the world

If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? (Well, yes — sound wave and physics work without our presence — but that’s not the point to be made). Along the same lines, if valuable things exist in our collections, what’s the point of the collection if we don’t share their stories and explain why we believe that they’re valuable in the first place?

It’s not simply enough to have a collection, you have a responsibility to do something with it. But somewhere along the way some museums thought the ‘having’ the collection was enough. And for a time, perhaps it was.

ICOM defines a museum:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Objects don’t tell stories, they exist. People tell stories. Storytelling only happens when a person is involved. Objects alone don’t have merit and it’s only through sharing context that authenticity becomes valuable. Simply, Sigmund Freud’s chair, without it’s context—it’s story, is just an old chair.

Look at your collection. If you’re not sharing it as brilliantly as possible, in multiple ways, why do you have a collection?

 

 

1. Museums have collections, sometimes of objects, sometimes of ideas.

We start with this premise because without our collections, there’s little that differentiates a museum. These collections, which museums are well practiced at cultivating and caring for, are the foundation of the experiences that can and should take place at the museum.

It is easy at an art museum to see the collection. It is usually hanging there on the wall or, if common opinion is to be believed, largely tucked away in row upon row of storage shelving. Likewise, in a natural history museum, it is easy to see the fantastically arrayed display of biological specimens carefully displayed in careful perpetuity. The presentation of these collections are obvious – even if their ‘value’ is obscured.

But some museums don’t have permanent collections in the same way.

Instead they deal with knowledge and ideas as they primary thing to represent. At a planetarium, no matter how much the public might want to touch a rock from the moon or a mote of comet dust, it’s not going to be there. While a science centre might have a display of early communications technology, it’s in a supporting role to discussing electronics or telecommunications. At a zoo or aquarium, when one animal dies and is replaced, it is not the individual animal that ‘matters’ – even if it does get a cute name for marketing purposes like Tai Shan. Here, the preservation of ideas doesn’t require a conservation team, but it does require staff to be deeply engaged with the topic as it evolves and changes. Their understanding and scholarly effort is every bit as deep as required by a physical collection.

While these experiences are different, it’s important to note that they share something in common – they are the start of a story.

0. The Preface: Why?

The simple answer is ‘why not?’ though that’s likely to be unsatisfying to people who want more context. This list of ideas was birthed in response to having these conversations ourselves, as well as seeing and hearing the conversations happening throughout the museum-world, over over the last few years as new people enter the field and a new generation of professionals works their way up through the ranks.

Is this entirely new? No, not entirely. It’s pulling it together into a simple, readable set of ideas where we enjoy some novelty. We have brilliant colleagues tweeting, blogging, writing, and making. This site doesn’t supplant the efforts of others, nor does it try to pretend that all museums are broken. But, if you want to be a modern and new museum, this thinking is meant for you.

If you’re already well down this path, we’re likely not exciting for you. We hope that you see kindred thought in the things that we say or provide dissenting opinions based on your experiences. Our desire is to be useful, so examples (both pro and con) are welcome.

If you’re not thinking like this, we’ve tried to make the rationale straightforward and show progression in thought. This isn’t about technology or new exhibits or collecting or the things museums already understand and do well. This is a view to engagement that takes a step forward reflecting on the reality of your visitors.

We choose anonymity deliberately. Every visitors comes to you at first anonymously and yet, if we are to believe in engagement, soliciting and valuing their opinions then we need to work at building relationships. Questioning who they are or their context or motivations is irrelevant. We need to judge each other on what we’re saying and the merits of the ideas, not on who we are. That’s also how we help newcomers to the field feel welcome and that they have a right to contribute.

Just as importantly, we’re trying to present an unbiased view that isn’t immediately categorized by who we are and what we do. We have a range of experiences, we’ve worked around the world, and we want to make the signal that we hear stronger.

We have some ideas where this might go and how we will engage, but we also reserve the right to change things as needed and make a go of something new. We’re looking forward to the journey and enjoying it already. We hope you do too.