The Idea

The Small Museum is a major research project by Good, Form & Spectacle. The basic question of the research is What would a 21st Century cultural institution be like if it was designed today, from scratch? 

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, since late 2013 actually.. There’s an original “First Draft Thoughts” doc in the archives that I’ve pasted in here and edited, after some time thinking about it all. I’d send the original to you if you ask nicely.

I thought I wanted a job as a high-level digital person in a museum, but, I don’t think that anymore. I’ve been thinking about a “long game,” creating a place (both physical and intellectual) where I would spend time — years — on learning the trade from the inside, and crafting interesting, well-designed solutions to challenges faced by small cultural institutions. That’s when the idea of making The Small Museum was born. A real-life cultural heritage research museum; a working model, that people can visit, and artists, designers, students, and technologists can use to further their research.

Why small? Because small museums are the coolest, and they also make up about 80% of the world’s libraries, archives and museums. Ostensibly, it would appear as something like a normal museum (bricks and mortar, a collection, visitors, etc). Perhaps that’s a folly though, to allow two other ideas to percolate: to investigate and subvert current museological practice through research and development. In particular, working to create a new type of institution with a digital spine, woven into the body of the institution from its inception. (Koven Smith writes well about Defining “Digital” – I’d like to actually do it.)

It would also be important to share ideas out loud, and try to attract other researchers and practitioners and tired museum professionals to a space where independent, productive research is taking place. I love the idea of building community in this physical place, and (re)joining the growing community of folks online all around the world who are active in this space.

There are so many questions, each of which I’d like to answer slowly, and with thought and output. These are just a few of them.

  1. How do you even make a museum?
  2. How do you start a museum?
  3. Can you have a museum without a collection?
  4. What if you only have one object?
  5. Should a museum have a library and archive?
  6. What’s pro-active archiving?
  7. What’s real-time history?
  8. What’s an entrepreneurial museum?
  9. How would we redesign a museum for today, from the ground up?

The three themes of the work would be:

One key idea I’d like to challenge directly is that only experts can create “museum-ready” knowledge. I’d also like to test my own theories that “the great unwashed” is or has been largely rejected by museum professionals. Thanks to the web (and projects like Flickr Commons), institutions are starting to realise that the public are interested and can actually help create knowledge to store with the collections. I’d like to press on this, and even consider what kind of software would help to encompass this kind of “effusive metadata.”

Context/Object as Witness
In many digital versions of museum collections, the major piece that’s missing is any kind of actual, real-world context about the stuff. Again, I’ve seen many, many times that the public have this stuff pouring out of them, and I’d like to design methodologies to harness and collect it intentionally. How many ways can we describe an object?

I would like to study the practice of curation, and try to apply what I learn what I’m doing at The Small Museum, and vice versa. I’d also be very interested to try to curate an exhibition, and also to invite other people who are interesting to do the same. Curation is a dirty word these days, and I’d like to understand its true meaning much more fully. I’d be especially interested to work on building community through interesting events, lectures, small conferences and other excuses to get together to do R&D.

This next bit is verbatim from the original February 2013 outline:

In my head, I’m imagining

  • something like a small shop front, close to a Tube station, perhaps with a neon “Museum” sign, or maybe a pub,
  • it would have opening hours,
  • and a web presence,
  • hopefully some visiting experts, and students,
  • an exhibition (particularly to go through the process of trying to borrow a work from another museum, and talk about that). I would need a security guard!
  • to create an endowment for the institution from the beginning, and fold it’s continual growth into everything I do. The idea of self-sufficiency is somewhat alien to many cultural heritage institutions, but I think it can be different.
    • Perhaps the shopfront could have a coffee shop or juice bar or some other income setup.
  • on the other hand, I’m also curious about the idea of a deliberately short term museum.

So there you go. That’s the general idea.

Does that sound like something you’ve seen before? Please, let me know. I’m constantly looking out for other guiding lights or examples of this sort of thing.

2 thoughts on “The Idea

  1. Martha Burns Findlay says:


    A colleague sent me a link to your site. Thought you might be interested in Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum (which you can also buy as a book) –

    Nina Simon also has a brilliant blog:

    There are loads of museums that are now shifting the parameters of what museums can and should be, which includes co-curated exhibitions, pop-up museums and use of digital technologies. This reflects a museum sector which increasingly wants to be more socially engaged. For an overview you might be interested in reading the Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives:

    Anyway, hope this may be of interest to you. Good luck for your project!


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