Prima Facie Reportage

As we noted back in January in our What Is It A Museum Of? post, we’re aligning our thinking and progress with the UNESCO Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook. We thought, therefore, that the structure in that document might be useful to borrow for our write-up of the fabulous 10 days of The Small Museum Version 1.

Both Harriet and I will be reflecting on our residency along those lines, so please stay tuned for further updates. In the meantime, here’s the general structure of that handbook so you can see the sorts of things we’re thinking through. Isn’t it interesting that collections management is only a small piece of what museums are?

Professional Code of Ethics

Historical background to collecting; The first public museums; Minimum standards & professional ethics; Managing the museum; Making and maintaining collections; Interpreting and furthering knowledge – accessibility; Appreciating and promoting the natural and cultural heritage; Public service and public benefit; Working with communities; Legislation; Professionalism.

Collections management

Developing a collections management policy; Acquisition and accessioning; Deaccessioning and disposals; Numbering and marking of objects in the collection; Loans condition reports; Collections storage; Handling and moving collections; Photography; Insurance; Public access to collections; Display and exhibition galleries and rooms; Research of collections.

Inventories and documentation

Acquisitions, long-term loans and accessioning; Inventory control and cataloguing; Syntax and terminology; Object numbering, labelling and marking; Location and movement control; Backlog accessioning, inventory control and cataloguing; Manual and computer-based cataloguing and retrieval; Images; Web access to the information about the collection; Staff and Financial Resources; Recommended cataloguing fields.

Care and preservation of collections

Deciding priorities and assessing risks; Reducing future loss and damage in 100 years or more; Classifying risks to collections; The Nine Agents of Deterioration; The collection preservation cycle: Step 1: Check the basics – Step 2: Survey the risks – Step 3: Plan improvements to collection risk management; Examples of specific risk assessments and individual solutions; Integrated risk management of pests (IPM); Integrated, sustainable risk management of lighting, pollutants, temperature, and humidity; Museum lighting guidelines; Museum temperature and humidity guidelines; Museum pollutant guidelines; Integrating management of all four agents.

Display, exhibits and exhibitions

Types of displays; The object: interpretation within the exhibition context; Exhibition management in relation to other museum activities; Design: the basic planning and designing process; Creating the planning brief; Developing the exhibition; Production and materials; Completing the exhibition; Evaluating the finished exhibition

Caring for the visitor

The benefits for museums?; What are the underpinning principles for providing quality visitor services; Some key issues to consider in developing a visitor services policy statement; Defining and understanding the visitor; Types of visitors and their needs; Planning and managing visitor services; Specific areas for attention; Checklist from the visitors’ point of view.

Education in the context of Museum function

Collections and education; Developing and managing museum education; Museum education and the community; Designing educational programs: the basic principles; Choice of teaching and learning methods in museum education; Museum publications; Types of didactic material commonly used in museums; Extramural activities; Informal education.

Museum management

Management structure; Teamwork; Leadership styles of directors and other senior staff; Building a mission statement; Financial management; Six rules for planning a budget; Museum ethics and management; The planning process; Issues to be considered; Evaluation; SWOT analysis.

Managing people

Understanding personnel management; The main categories of museum work and museum employees; Personnel information, involvement and fairness; Recruiting and retaining high quality staff; Recruitment and promotion selection methods and approaches; Minimum requirements for a statement or contract of the terms of employment; Staff management, training and professional development; Disciplinary and grievance procedures; Health and safety at work; How to assess risks in the workplace: five steps in risk assessment.


Introduction to marketing; The current orientation of museums in relation to marketing theory and practice; Product, price, promotion, place; Strategic market planning; Mission and vision; Internal and external factors; Target groups; Promotion; Advertising; Public relations; Building a museum “brand”.


Who is responsible for security policy and its enforcement?; Risk analysis and the security plan; Implementing the strategic plan for museum protection; Measures to ensure security in display and exhibition rooms; Intruder Detection System (IDS); Access Control System (ACS); Closed Circuit Television (CCTV); Automatic fire detection and alarm system (FAS); The Emergency Plan.



The Version 1 experiment certainly didn’t cover each and every aspect of this handbook’s suggestions, but we did touch some of them, even in the 10 days. We’re going to write a bit about each chapter and how it manifested during the experiment. In some ways, the residency was something of an ersatz museum, and frankly, that’s interesting in itself!


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.