Museum 3.0

what will the museum of the future be like?

I am writing a speech about the uses of museums during this serious economic downturn. It is clear to me that museums could be much more helpful and timely by changing hours, job retraining, health care information and all manner of social service. What I wonder is if you think they should do that or retain their primary function of preservation, education, etc. or do both and if so what is the mix? Thanks. e--


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Hi Elaine,

In his 22 January article published in The Nation, Benjamin Barber stated, "The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit--fundamental change in attitudes and behavior." Since creating environments, programs, exhibitions and outreach that help us as individuals and communities examine our behavior and attitudes, is an essentail part of a museum's educational mission, it seems clear that museums should be using all of their communication strategies to help us sort out and make sense of the fundamental changes we are going through at this time. And a soup kitchen or two wouldn't be a bad idea either.

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Around the time of the economic bust, Boston Children’s Museum began the second year of “GoKids in Boston Neighborhoods,” a series of family dinners at public housing developments featuring health and fitness challenges co-designed by resident families and museum educators. At its core, it’s a human service project, a kind of empowered soup kitchen. Families get fed and then coached in how to envision the healthiest possible version of their lives. Along the way, if things are going well, families start to coach each other, new bonds fuse with the museum through earned memberships, and a happy triangulation falls into place.

At one development, something interesting happened in participant demographics. Somewhat higher-income families from outside the development saw our museum banner on the development community center and began to show up; enticed, they said, by the offer of a meal and the prospect of earning no-cost museum memberships through participation. Put it in perspective: it’s unlikely that these families would have hopped in line at a soup kitchen advertised at the development. Similarly, when I’ve asked residents why they don’t take free food and meals from the deeply under-utilized food pantries at each development, they offer varying choruses of “Oh, that? That’s for poor people.” So what’s the difference between a social service soup kitchen and a museum soup kitchen? The museum association and learning objective somehow rub away possible stigma, allowing people to get their basic nutritional needs met while taking charge of their own health through programs.

That’s where I think museums fit in: as non-socially stigmatized stages for bringing people together. With today’s announcement that new claims for unemployment hit a 26-year high, the same struggling families who would be loath to enter a food bank might right now be telling their friends about your museum’s “deal” day or night. What if, on that probably increasingly visitor-heavy day, you invited a few social service agencies to participate in a museum-wide game, while quietly advertising their resources? If you’re a history museum, what if you set up a talkback board and asked visitors to post tips for getting by in the economic downturn, and frame it in a historic perspective with items from your collection?

I read somewhere that potlucks-as-accepted-social-norms took off during the Great Depression. Shared struggle, at varying levels, changed the rules of hospitality. Last year, Boston Children’s Museum hosted a giant potluck called “Boston’s Longest Dinner Table.” With a call out to Boston to break the “record” for the largest number of families to answer the dinner bell simultaneously, we set up a 200 foot table in a hallway with cloths, plates, cups of water, funky plasticware, and about 300 donated apple “desserts,” and then waited for families to bring the food. At a totally full table, I saw kids trying edamame for the first time, families swapping tiny slices of sandwich bought from a local vendor, and—best of all—a family that brought a cake to share for Aunt Jackie’s birthday, spent at the museum. We sang to her together, at a table where about 40 people were from our most recent housing development collaboration.

A lot of solutions we might dream up in a flurry of HOPE and will stray far from mission (maybe you’re not going to retrain adults to join the creative economy, or teach your gallery guards to offer visitors budget-stretching tips, or offer vision screenings—though that might be a good idea at an art museum). Even more basic ideas can be trying (I’m very aware that a giant potluck is not easy, nor is it likely inclusive of the very poorest, and don't even get me started on peanut allergies). However, I make the assumption in my work that museums are contact spaces for humans. You probably have a building, and that building probably has a café or some other room where crumbs won’t muddle the Rodin. You probably also have some visitors. Why not introduce a conversational element to a place where people already gather? Why not show your visitors that you are listening (and relevant) to the world around you? Where is the low-hanging fruit that you can twist to address current situations? I don't think that museums need to transform into food pantries to stay in the game; I still think that collections and their preservation are important. But, like cultural pharmacists, we can dream about creative ways our missions could possibly overlap and interact with our visitors' more basic needs.

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You know - there is a fascinating twist in this post. About how a soup kitchen has a stigma of being for poor people, but a free meal from a museum is . . . different. The stigma goes away.

So often museums are fighting the opposite stigma, the one that they are for those of high socio-economic status (and, ergo, a perception that they are not for everyone).

Is there some way to bring these two things together? A museum soup kitchen, as suggested here, may be a start . . . now that would be an interesting partnership.

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Dear All who answered. I am so delighted with the references and ideas and cautionary tales. Now knowing the places cited here as examples well and some others -- Children's museums who held sessions about bereavement for parents to help children at the 9/11 time, a Swedish museum who had an exhibition about grafitti and then brought the artists and the police together to negotiate, an African museum who brought tribal leaders together using the traditional negotiation rituals rather then the current jurisprudence. So there are some more really wonderful ones.

However the fact remains that these places are in some sense exceptional and the museum community in celebrating them also shys away from emulation. Anyone know of museums who decide to venture into more socially active behavior because they wish to rethink their direction and become more relevant and socially active. I am interested if any museums are rethinking their hours or admission prices or exhibition schedules now. "Keep your cards and letters coming" I will be happy to share the speech with anyone who wants it when it is done. Just send a request through the inbox. e--

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Elaine -

Good question, but I wouldn't be surprised if it takes a month or two to get your answer. Having been through a number of down-sizes in the past (at Newark we had to lay off ten percent of our family known as staff in the early 90's) the shock to the institutional system--the mourning--took several months to work through. During that time, I felt we, led by Mary Sue Price, were at our most creative. However, it took several months for that creativity to articulate itself. In following various posts right now I perceive the field is in this same period of shock--and perhaps this same period of quiet ruminating creativity.

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Elaine and all - My thoughts have been evolving along the line that museums' immediate futures must be fully-integrated with the local experience. Museums can pursue their core mission while also offering their communities a comfortable space to know each other, discuss and understand local challenges, and craft shared responses that help address those problems. Fro museums that don't already have a culture of being conversation places, taking on that change must begin with baby steps. The museum may have to start with just one local issue to help its community weather while laying the groundwork for helping support work on other issues . The most appropriate issues will be those that can be liked to mission and content, but most will involve new threads to be woven in to a museums current practice.

Our art museum and historical society should be helping deal with the ethnic divide in our community - through art, music, history, food; they should be thinking about how they can highlight the shared experiences and celebrate the unique at the same time. And if they have to start doing that by offering groceries, that's great. A few extra social service threads connected to museums' core mission work is what will connect us to our communities. That connection is increasingly necessary for survival and soon will be considered requisite for all but the very specialized and the national museums -- and even they should be careful to value the connection even if it doesn't mean survival.


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Hi Elaine

We (the Australian Museum) are just about to begin a trial of Museum Morning Teas where our Science Communication and Under 5's programs work with community organisations - in this instance the Salvation Army's Oasis Young Support Group (- to provide parenting literacy for homeless and disadvantaged parents through a series of free visits to our Kidspace programs.

This is based on a program developed by Museum Victoria and Sci Tech program which they generously shared with us -Science Morning Teas. The original program was a brave and importnat step in reimagining audience and the place of the museum in the community.

Our trial was planned before the advent of this GFC - but our experience so far points to two interesting and unexpected advantages/ironies:

The advantages are that we benefit from the experience of engaging with our community - it proivdes insight into our audiences (and the holes that exist there); gaps in the relationship between instititional mandates and action; opportunities for reflection on our concetions of ourselves and what we do; and, a major opportunity for us to access funding pots aimed at 'social inclusion' (to date we have a small grant from Sydney City Council for this; if the trial goes well our develoment officer is very keen to apply for these sorts of grants). All these things provide strong aguements for the Museum to reach-out (which is a differnet proposition to outreach).

The irony is that we cannot run the program without external funding and that this sort of program could represent a new source of funding for the institution - because of the audience focus on disadvantaged groups - as funding sources constrict and funders seek programs that do the "most good" by targeting the most disadantaged.

The first visit in the trial is scheduled for next month - I'll let you know how it goes.

Look forwrad to seeing your paper here on ning.


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It has been very enlightening reading the various posts.
You might also be interesting in checking out the Generic Social Outcomes that were developed in the UK.

Elaine - I would love to read the finished article.


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Very good question, Elaine, timely and immensely important. I started to respond, and it spun off into a whole blog post of its own.
My train of thought--despite Megan's lovely and apropos story of the Boston Children's Museum, are museum best suited to be soup kitchens, or to be makers of stone soup? You can read my thoughts at

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Orchestras as soup kitchens! Evidently museums are not the only cultural institutions grappling with the issue of their broader societal responsibilities during economic crises.

US orchestras to help feed needy
Yahoo! News - AP, 2/10/2009
"'The Soloist,' the upcoming movie about a cellist who became homeless, has struck a chord with American orchestras. They are mobilizing to help feed the hungry. At least 163 orchestras in 45 states are expected to participate in food drives in late March, a month before the movie's release on April 24, the League of American Orchestras said Tuesday. . . . 'The story of "The Soloist" reminds us that classical music has the power to sustain spirits and change lives, even under the most difficult circumstances,' said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the league, a national service organization for orchestras."

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Hi, Elaine, I think we might not want to think of this as a "downturn" which seems to imply a temporary situation. From all that I am hearing and reading - and I have become a reader of the business section - Stephen Perlstein and Paul Krugman are my new best friends- I think this is going to be somewhat permanent - or at least for the rest of our lifetime. I'm not really giving an answer but I think our perspective has to be long term. Also keeping in mind there will probably be many fewer museums and they may not be able to be open in the consistent way they are now (I'm partly inspired by the Wiki posting on AAM's CFM site - looking at museums in 2019 )- I think museums could easily be greatly compromised before they can be responders - unless they become very smart very quickly. This means, I think, really trying to understand the long term effects of what is happening, understanding the new technologies that seem to be totally unaffected by the 'downturn," expanding as the economy is constricting. It's a great question and the really right one to be asking how. Glad you are doing it. G

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Hi Elaine

I like your question because it begins to tug at a thread of the museum cloak that seems obviously out of place. Traditional museum work is looking increasingly disconnected from the local and global realities that swirl around us. By pulling on this thread we risk the unraveling of the cloak that museums have been comfortably wrapped in for as long as any of us can remember.

What strikes me about your question is that the two options you offer up are both 'outputs' options. On the one hand are the actions of collecting, preserving and mounting educational programs. On the other are job retraining and the delivering of social services. Setting aside the quagmire of what a museum's mission might say (and the topic of whether museums need to completely redefine their missions deserves a lot of focus), it strikes me that unless one clarifies the desired outcome (ie. cultural wellbeing - and what that really entails), not just the outputs (collections being built, exhibits being developed, programs being offered, etc), museums will continue to be guided by a compass that doesn't have a 'magnetic north' as a solid reference point (is there a magnetic south for those south of the equator?). Collectively, museums and other cultural organizations would benefit from stepping back and asking what does a functional, sustainable culture look like - and what are its constituent parts (eg. for individuals, for local and global communities, as well as for the environment, both locally and globally). What museums lack at a fundamental level are cultural feedback loops, rooted in the well-being of local and global communities, that help to guide their public programming options.

Personally I don't think that museums should become soup kitchens, but continuing to do what they have done for the past century or two, sadly, seems to mirror the dysfunction of our species on the planet. There is a lot of dialogue that must happen for our field to get its bearings on your question.

Douglas Worts
Toronto, Canada

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