What is it a museum of?

As I chat with people about the general idea, the first question I get in response is usually what is it a museum of? Given that, it’s useful for me to write down the answer, roughly anyway.

In some ways, the collection is irrelevant. What I’m interested in exploring is the mechanics of a small cultural institution, the thing itself. Yes, that means exhibitions and caring for a collection (or else is it even a museum?), but it seems to me that a lot of the tools specific to the sector are about collections management, digital asset management, and customer relationship management. By us not focussing directly on the collection, it might allow us to ask new questions and develop new tools for the more prosaic operations that small institutions perform. The research challenge here is to try to help keep small institutions alive, and an expensive piece of software that only looks after their collection isn’t the way to do that.

One friend referred me to the IMLS definition list: “Museums include, but are not limited to, aquariums, arboretums, art museums, botanical gardens, children’s/youth museums, general museums (those having two or more significant disciplines), historic houses/sites, history museums, natural history/anthropology museums, nature centers, planetariums, science/technology centers, specialized museums (limited to a single distinct subject), and zoological parks.”

To try avoid getting stuck in the collection diversity question, or perhaps at least delay attention to it, my current plan is to perhaps only have a single object in the museum, perhaps even for as long as a year. So, a collection, to be sure, but a very small one. This is for various reasons:

  1. To think long and deep about how practice can start changing to gather and collate and keep multiple descriptions and perspectives on objects, with rigour. I bet we won’t be able to resist collecting other bits and pieces along the way to help describe the First Object, but would try to keep that to a minimum.
  2. To constrain research and exploration to the set of infrastructural things small institutions need to be able to run. I’m thinking mundane things, and I want to understand all (other) aspects of small institutions, not just their collections. My hope is that the R&D we do to create the small institution and have it run well and smoothly will not be about collection stuff, but about infrastructural support with things like volunteer management and transaction management. In time, the tools we might design and build to help run our small museum might be able to be generalized for these other types of institutions. It’s almost as if the collection is irrelevant. There’s a ton of interesting work to do exploring that One Object concept.
  3. The one object is going to be something mundane. A modern day amphora, if you will. Something full of stories that lots of people are familiar with and possible even have.

As I’ve chatted to friends about the idea, more than one of them have responded with “It’s a museum of museums,” and I really like that. Another description is “a museum of metadata,” which is also growing on me.

I’ve also been really inspired by the UNESCO Handbook for Running a Museum. It was published in 2004, I think, and basically intended to be distributed around the Middle East as the war raged around it. You can see from the list of subjects that there’s a bunch of other stuff that museums need to do apart from looking after their collections:

  • The Role of Museums and the Professional Code of Ethics
  • Collections Management
  • Inventories and Documentation
  • Care and Preservation of Collections
  • Display, Exhibits and Exhibitions
  • Caring for the Visitor
  • Museum Education
  • Museum Management
  • Managing People
  • Marketing
  • Museum Security, including Disaster Preparedness
  • Illicit Traffic issues

I’ve copied the chapter headings on to my notebook so I can drill them into my brain.

Chapter Headings

So, what’s it a museum of? We’ll find out.

(I’m keeping people anonymous for now, since this site is a bit new and I haven’t asked permission to identify anyone.)

You may also be interested to listen to the Gin and Innovation #005 podcast from Strange Telemetry (George Voss and Justin Pickard talking to James Bridle about copper and museums) that I’m listening to right now, as I write this post.


One thought on “What is it a museum of?

  1. Pingback: Prima Facie Reportage | The Small Museum

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