#flmuseums 1: building a 21st century museum

Back to FutureLearn with Behind the scenes at the 21st century museum from Leicester’s School of Museum Studies (@LeicsMusStud) and National Museums Liverpool, six weeks at two hours per week, it says here (with 20 steps in week 1 this feels unlikely). 9000 10K+ signed up.

How can we understand museums today? Who makes the decisions about what to put in them and whose stories they tell? Who are museums for and why are they working to engage new audiences? How do we respond emotionally to museum objects and spaces? And how can museums play a role in the pursuit of social justice, human rights, or health and wellbeing?

Week 1 explored what we mean by the term ‘museum’ in the 21st century and how this may differ from notions of a ‘traditional’ museum.  In museums and galleries we learn about the past not by reading a book or watching a film, but by moving through the museum and engaging with objects and collections, and stories.

Defining the term ‘museum’:

  • UK’s Museums Association (1998): Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.
  • UK’s Museum Association (1984): A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit.
  • Oxford English Dictionary (2012): A building in which objects of interest or importance are stored and displayed.
  • International Council of Museums (ICOM), (2007): 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 environments for purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Thinking about the range of objects, stories, ideas and cultural practices that museums across the globe preserve and interpret, what do these definitions include/exclude? What is prioritised, and what is marginalised? Does it focus on the museums’ many forms (physical, online?) or its functions (collect, interpret, etc)? Does it prioritise particular values? Whose values might they be?

The Museum of Liverpool

Museums as a mirror, celebrating past successes and reminding of past failures, but also of place. Liverpool as place is a nice big one to look at, a counterpoint to other local/city museums. I’ve been to the National Maritime Museum in Albert Dock (and the Beatles Experience), but now we have a rather trendy looking Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011 on the waterfront:

The Museum of Liverpool is far from many people’s notion of a traditional museum. It is a lively, modern space that is enjoyed by a range of people and delivers services both within and outside of the museum’s walls.

The Museum of Liverpool sees itself as more than just a building, but a space that is connected to the city in social, physical, and metaphorical ways. It replaced the Museum of Liverpool Life, which opened in 1993 (I may have been there…). With over 300,000 visitors a year, the popularity of the original museum prompted the development of a new, purpose-built venue. (The tone of the vid – something for everybody (lowest common denominator?) – makes me think there’s nothing for me? It’s all on a plate, you don’t make your own choices. An experience, made up of stories. Doesn’t inspire to learning or action.)

What factors are considered important when designing and building a museum in the 21st century?

  • architecture and design – on reclaimed land, an empty space between the Pier Head and the Albert Dock; now with a view over the Three Graces; first new public building to be built in the city for more than 40 years and the first significant development in the World Heritage Site; project from concept to opening took 10 years
  • designing narrative spaces – visitor routes around the different spaces,  design linked to the notions of history and narrative that the museum staff wanted to support;  what is gained and lost with a more open and flexible way of moving around the spaces, to what extent does the architecture shape visitors’ experiences of the objects and stories on display
  • the atrium – hosts performances, participates in city wide festivals, pop-up display for campaigns; also as an income generator via corporate events
  • the shop – “nicely tucked away”
  • visitors have a choice of galleries and can come across things rather than being taken through a chronological series in a linear route; “a little bit like being in a city”
  • in terms of narrative and storytelling a history museum should acknowledge the fact that there is no one story, no one history – there are many ways to look at things

David Zahle (BIG) in Curator Magazine: “Museums today are the living rooms of cities…a space were people can come together and interact socially.” Museums blur the line between architecture and art. They are no longer only about presenting objects behind glass, but increasingly they also function as social spaces, where people meet, spend time, enjoy a meal and engage in hands-on experiences together. There’s truly something for everyone. So consider yourself invited to the living rooms of Copenhagen and make yourself at home!

How have museums changed over time?

A trajectory over some 500 years from museums being imagined and experienced as buildings or venues to being understood fundamentally as something else: projects, services and processes.

In that 16th and 17th centuries cultures put objects in rooms, using architectural spaces to frame narratives and to frame collections. Later, other actors (friends societies, literature and philosophical societies, touring exhibitions, the late 20th century idea of outreach) saw the museum trying to burst out of its four walls and see itself as a project, a service, something that you could experience away from the venue.

The traditional shape of the museum is one where the curator is king, where the curator was able to collect, research and describe objects in the way that s/he thought fit from the perspective of their professional experience. The web challenged this. Instead of there being one singular authoritative voice it brought a choir of different voices, a cacophony of user-generated content, with different perspectives and different ways of seeing the world and interpreting the objects within the collection.

The web has allowed us to reach out to audiences that may not be able to attend the museum, and its visitors bring with them their whole social network, enabling the museum to follow the visitor out the door. So as the visitor continues through their lives, the museum can be something that can jump in with more information, extra content, a follow-up idea or story.

Flipping the model of museum visitation – for 500 years the standard model was of localisation, of visitors coming to the museum. Now the museum visits those visitors, wherever they might be, in transit, a flâneur through the city. Rather than immersing the visitor and enveloping them in this highly controlled choreographed experience, suddenly the museum has to think about joining the visitor in their everyday lives.

What makes a good museum?

Is Liverpool unique? Museums as tourist attractions or for the community? (Maybe working with the community is what makes it able to offer the sense of place for tourists.) As an entertainment venue/experience? Changing definitions of culture must also play a role here. Does it have to be a new building to do this?

Dipping into the discussions reactions seemed pretty mixed, even tending to the ‘traditional’. Many felt a need for more space and stillness than presented here, to move about, read, look…can’t be all things to all men.

There’s loads of interesting material here, which I may be able to return to – it’s not possible to do justice to it in two hours, let alone forge a furrow through the discussion forums. The overlap with curation/ism is of interest, as well as the role of the city/local/urban museum, although later weeks may address different sorts of museums.

It might have been an idea to separate the material into different tracks, as seen on #corpusmooc, so you don’t feel compelled to address everything – eg additional materials, material on community consultation, project management…


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