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The Museum Lens - Meeting Transcript
April 16, 2016

About the Meeting

As much as the museum experience happens through highly designed forms of engagement it is also preceded by a particular mindset. There is a noticeable shift in our perception of the value of what surrounds us when we enter a museum. Let’s call this mindset the museum lens. While people tend to drop this lens when they leave the museum, peering through it can transform the everyday into the extraordinary. One of the goals of ubiquitous museology is to instigate the adoption of the museum lens in daily life. But what does this mindset entail? Sharpened observation skills, a deeper application of critical thinking, self-reflection, recognizing the unfamiliar in the familiar, and (perhaps most important) a sense of permission to be curious and engage in our surroundings.

These attributes were some of those that emerged during a meeting of museum administrators, educators, designers and media specialists at the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center in October, 2015. The meeting, titled “the Museum Lens”, was part of a series of gatherings organized by the Omnimuseum Project around the topic of ubiquitous museology. The goal of the meeting was to try and get at the conditions that constitute the "museum mindset" and how it might be adopted in the everyday world. Four primary question were introduced to launch the discussion:

1. What is the “museum lens”?

2. What are the skills and behaviors associated with the museum lens?

3. What do museums do better, or differently than other institutions (formal and informal)?

4. What does seeing through the museum lens bring to school, workplace, community, society?

While participants largely referenced experiences inside brick and mortar museums the discussion remained centered on how the museum lens would be applied to the world at large. This also brought up ethical and operational questions about ways of triggering the museum lens in public spaces, the overtness of these methods, their producers, and our control over when to engage in them or not.

As most conversations go we wove in and out of a number of topics including;

• The “museum effect”

• Framing

• Curation and the expert vs. the novice

• Permission to participate

• The multivalence of things

• The role of serendipity in a world of endless choices

• Cascading stages of entering the ubiquitous museum

• Learning skills vs. learning facts

Below is the full transcript of our discussion. It makes for a great (albeit lengthy) read. Enjoy!

- M.W. Burns


Full Transcript from The Museum Lens meeting 10/17/15

Michael Burns, Director of the Omnimuseum Project, and Design Director at Quatrefoil Associates (meeting organizer)
Trisha Edwards, Head of Education for the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation (meeting organizer)
Carol Blossert, Carol Blossert Services and host of “Museum Life” on VoiceAmerica
Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Engagement at the Accokeek Foundation
John Leigh, Multi-Media Engineer at Quatrefoil Associates
Nancy Proctor, Deputy Director for Digital Experience At the Baltimore Museum of Art and Co-Chair for Museums and the Web
Laura Yoder, Doctoral Candidate, English, NYU

MB: What is the Museum Lens as it relates to the everyday world and ubiquitous museology?

CB: This is a fascinating question and I’ve never really thought about it in this way but, two things came to me – Jeffery Smith, who wrote a book several of years ago called “the Museum Effect” did some research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he was doing intercept interviews with people who were going to the museum and essentially developed this theory of the museum effect which was – as people were in the museum they started thinking differently, they started to think more deeply. [They became] more philosophical, [they had] more questions of “where do I fit in the world?”. It called up memories, [it made them more self reflective], very deep thoughts. So that was the closest I could come to [answering] what is the museum lens? There is intentionality to looking deeper.

Then the other individual that came to mind is David Carr and his prolific writings that are really thoughtful about the museum field. Basically he says that people come to museums because they have deep questions about themselves and they’re trying to find answers, they are “searchers”, and the museum gives them an opportunity to find whatever it is that they are looking for. And he is looking at [the visitor experience] on a deeper level [beyond fact finding] or a history lesson. You have a computer in your pocket with all the answers already so what is it that draws you to go [to a museum]? That is the burning question.

One other thought that came to me as I was wrestling with the question [of the museum lens] is that Jeffery Smith’s and David Carr’s work makes me feel very comfortable because we are all white and this idea of looking more deeply and being philosophical, that’s right up my alley, but thinking more deeply about inclusivity and what that really means in talking to colleagues of mine who are studying these issues of White power and the fact that not everybody thinks of these things in the same way. SO I got to thinking… with this tension between these two ideas, maybe the museum lens is even better outside [the museum] because it provides opportunities for people to think [more deeply]. We don’t want to tell [people] what to think, we don’t want to interpret it for them, but we want people to “think” and then act.

AJ: I haven’t read David Carr but deeply believe that one of the reasons [we go to museums] is to find out more about ourselves. A lot of the work I’ve done has to do with creating immersive experiences for people to step into the shoes of other people and so when you were talking, it made me think about everyday experiences where we do that.

I do these highly designed museum things, some of them can happen with objects and some of them need no objects, some can be theater in different places and that’s begun a process of me thinking - do I really need a museum to do what I do? The objects almost become constraints for me when designing these things.… I worked at the Atlanta History Center that had a need for a Civil Rights program and we didn’t have objects for that.

MB:  You mean a collection?

AJ: Well we had a collection but it wasn’t on display. But we had this need – visitors were telling us they were interested in Civil Rights because Atlanta is a Civil Rights town. So, we created a role playing experience where people go through three different Civil Rights “snapshots” to see what they would do in certain circumstances, and I think, while it would have been powerful if we could have then taken them to see the real objects connected to what they had just experienced, it didn’t need them completely. So that’s what got me thinking do I really need the museum, other than people want to come and learn there.

Now I work on a colonial farm – we have this kind of dual focus of environmental sustainability and colonial history and so my job was the marry those two things into programming and so “the set” is the colonial farm but what we do there is completely different now because our site is not the home of a famous person, it’s a composite family so we can change the interpretation of what we do, and we’ve made it all about environmental history.

But another thought I had when Carol was talking is that my sister was just visiting last weekend and she and I come from two different worlds. I live in Mt. Raimier, Maryland which she would consider the ghetto. 


…And she lives in a suburb of Indianapolis where there is only white people and she has a giant SUV… so coming to my house was almost like a museum experience for her… Its almost like her eyes were wide open the entire time, taking it all in, figuring out not only who she was, but who she was in relation to me. And her being there, made me think of the same things too because she represents my roots. We both grew up together but we went different ways and the longer we live apart the more different we get. She wanted to go on a segue tour [and I didn’t] but one of my friends told me I should do it for her, so I did and I had a blast because it was her agenda in my space.

I think there is something there, where… things you see everyday become mundane and there is probably a whole genre in learning to see that differently, but putting people in different environments…

MB: So you’re saying that when you step out of your comfort zone it heightens the experience.

AJ: Yes.

TE: I was just thinking as you were talking about that that when you travel somewhere new, like a foreign country, you’re not only seeing that world [differently] because its brand new, but you are always comparing and contrasting and evaluating… so how can we have that set of eyes even in familiar places?

MB: So when your sister was visiting your house, it was like a museum experience for her.

AJ: Yeah

MB: Were you the subject?

AJ: [Laughs] I think, yes.

MB: And did that make you more self-conscious?

AJ: It did and it made me anxious and… I’m gay and she’s not really familiar with that. She sees me as her sister from a long time ago, so I felt my gay lifestyle was on exhibit. So, yes it made me self-conscious but in a good way.

MB: So then, is a part of implementing what you’re talking about “displacement”? It reminds me of something Tricia brought up in our [ubiquitous museology] charrette a few weeks ago… that there are so many kids she’s worked with who live [only a few miles] away from the Washington Monument but have never visited it. That idea of stepping out of their element induces the sense of being on a journey. It sounds like that’s kind of what you were talking about.

AJ: Yeah, pretty much. The Segue Tour was an example of that. Getting to see things I saw in a certain way, in a different way. 

MB: And just to go back a little bit – Carol, both the examples you were talking about seemed to focus on the “visitor”, that the experience was all about them, which is interesting. I’d never really thought about it that way before. I’d always thought about it being something they were interested in, or about stumbling into something they might not have known they’d be interested in, but to bring it back to [a focus on] “them” is an interesting point. 

CB: Yeah, and I think David [Carr] says it eloquently, he says basically we are all very selfish, so even when we say, “I’m going to this exhibition because I want to know about Monet” its because we innately feel that knowing about Monet is going to tell us something about ourselves. But what I found so interesting about Jeff [Smith]’s work at the Met is it was the first time anyone [presented] data that said people’s [experience] was much deeper. This “museum effect” was really interesting. The other thing that was surprising for the researchers was that people didn’t articulate that as their intention when they walked in… they were having this deeper experience and it was always in the middle of the experience.

TE: That’s interesting 

CB: At the end they were moving out of the experience. They were starting to think about lunch, and the kid’s getting cranky…so its like there is this moment in the experience …where you are having these…[deeper] thoughts.

TE: I think we find that a lot here [at the National Museum of American History] because its about American history, its mostly tourist and they really connect to the flag or [things] we’ve said are important just by having them here, but people often have these personal connections or relate in a personal way and… so its interesting to hear that it happens in the art museum too. I think you’re connecting in a different way but… 

MB: [Here at National Museum of American History] it’s a lot about nostalgia.

TE:  Yeah, around things like the lunchbox exhibit.


CB: I think that an interesting concept, when you take a lunchbox and it has a different meaning when you display it in this museum, compared to an experience of [the lunchbox] in a flea market, because in a way you have that same experience of saying, “oh my grandma had that” or “I had that” but its still different [seeing it] in the museum. And this is why I love this concept of “the world as a museum” - because the lunchbox only makes sense if you lived in a world where you had those lunchboxes, if it was in your past somehow. If you lived in a community where nobody had lunchboxes and just had paper sacks, you might [look at lunchboxes as something outside your life - from another culture] verses saying “why isn’t my sack just as important?” if we’re talking about, say how we carry our lunch. Which gets back to museum collections and why we collect some things and don’t collect others. So the idea of saying, you can have those [heightened experiences] outside is, to me, extremely powerful. 

TE: There is an initiative in this museum around that same issue, trying to get people to see that, just because their lunchbox or paper sack isn’t in the museum doesn’t mean its not meaningful or valuable, not necessarily in a monetary sense, but that all the objects we have tell a story about our lives and our histories, whether our family history or community history and that, therefore they are important and they don’t have to be in the museum. It’s very hard to get people to actually make that shift in their mind.

LY: The question is about authenticity or legitimacy, the idea that it’s the “real thing” that you’re looking at in the museum, or potentially the real thing and, Tricia you made me thing essentially of the idea of value in a culture of disposal. When you throw things away, like this water bottle tells me a different story right here than it does in an exhibition about pollution or production and so I’m not really sure what to do with those two thoughts but, the combination of the authenticity of an object and the value of it because its unique or because its worth [money] or it’s the best [water bottle], as opposed to the beat up one. So there is that question of authenticity, and I think museums confer value, but at the same time what interests me about the “museum lens” idea is how do we see thrown away stuff, or stuff that isn’t seen as valuable in and of itself and even places like East Baltimore, a place that has been discarded in a number of ways, it just seems to me the museum lens is interested in is interacting, in a different way, the stuff we throw away or flow through, or take for granted. It’s a question of noticing differently but also a question of interacting and acting differently.

MB: There have been times where I’ve been stuck in traffic on the highway and sitting there, and looking off to the left seeing all of the junk that people have thrown out the window or somehow lost. You can find shoes and teddy bears and bottles and all kinds of stuff and I sometimes wonder who owned them, why are they there, what stories do they have to tell. But again that’s the idea, that things in the everyday world do carry meaning and its just a matter of somehow putting a [lens] on them or giving them some kind of attention that shifts your mind [away from understanding them as mundane]. 

CB: Just as you were talking about the discarded stuff and you taking time to look at that teddy bear and saying, “gee I wonder what story that holds” and because your bored sitting in traffic you probably are creating stories yourself.  And this is a hackneyed term but I wrote down, “the museum lens is a way to cultivate curiosity”. We’re all curious and that curiosity, we know, gets lost but we know its there and it just needs to be sparked somehow. It can be sparked whether it’s the lunchbox in the museum or the teddy bear on the side of the road and isn’t that what we’re hoping for? To create people who are curious about themselves and others, and are then empathetic because they are now in “different situations” and can compare themselves to others.

AJ: I think igniting curiosity and framing are two really important things. But “museum people” tend to get really lost in our own strategic plans and goals. I can think of a specific example that has to do with trash – At the National Colonial Farm we are on the Potomac River and we get a large amount of money from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and so it became a very important part of the school tour top take kids out to the pier and show them Mt Vernon – here’s the reason why we exist. We protect the view. That why we were founded in 1957, to protect the view of Mt. Vernon.  What used to happen is that a guide would take the kids to the pier and show them Mt Vernon and tell them all about George Washington but all the kids would look at all the trash on our shore. “There’s a tire! There’s a shoe! So, when we reconfigured the tour we would still take them out to the pier but we don’t show them the view of Mt Vernon, we show them the trash. So [the trash is] reframed. Once the simulation at Mt. Vernon [with live actors and period style sets] is over we show them real life - what’s happened to the environment. So then you can talk about the watershed and all that, but it’s a completely different framing, [the trash has become part of] a curated experience.

LY: Do you talk about the Colonial Trash?

AJ: Yes, well the lack of it really, and how they used everything.

LY: When they talk about museums in the 18th century the idea was that the world had a system and an order and you could make a museum that represented that. It was comprehensive.

MB: Right, the cabinet of curiosity was supposed to be a microcosm of everything.

LY: Yes and systems changed, right? So the cabinet of curiosity becomes the taxonomic museum.

MB: At a certain point they realized they’d taken on more than they thought they were.

LY: Universality becomes difficult or impossible and as the conversation has been going on we talked about inclusivity and the specialness of [everyday] objects but the idea of universality is something museums no longer claim, but in a way the museum lens is kind of a different thing – your words “omnimuseum” “ubiquitous museology” that sort of everythingness. And instead of moving or gathering examples of things together in a building and saying, ok, this represents everything, it seems like you’re flipping it so you have a one to one ratio between museumness and the environment or reality. So one of the questions is “how do you not get overwhelmed?”

MB: You mean where do you stop?

LY: Yeah.

MB: Doesn’t that have to do with the focus of the lens?

LY: I wonder if different lenses work at different time in different ways. How do you build a museum lens that allows for that structuring?

MB: That’s a good question and really the point of this conversation.

CB: I’m glad you brought up this idea that museums were established, either by individuals or philanthropic endeavors, to create a system. Now we know that system was very narrowly defined by wealthy white men who felt this was “the system” and now one of the challenges we face as a society is that we are really questioning – is that the prime system and everybody else has to adhere to it, and then when we don’t we have problems. But, taking that politic aside for a minute, so we don’t derail ourselves, what I think you are saying is that museums were created so people could make sense of things, and that that, maybe, is the definition [of the museum lens]. It is “making sense of”. And how we do that is – we frame things differently, we provide an intentional process and by doing that we import value to it. A teddy bear on the side of the road is just {trash} until you bring framing and an intentionality to it to make sense of it, at that point in time, for you.

LY: Is it also about producing a system or producing hegemony or producing a story, or producing empathy, I think, [producing empathy] was a huge goal. Its not just noticing differently or not just being more attuned to your environment, but it seems like its pushing toward doing something, or thinking more deeply.

CB: Well, going back to educational terms, its meaning making and its constructivism if you look at your life as a great big three dimensional framework, until you make meaning of something it doesn’t [fit into] to your framework. So, yes it ‘s a product of making meaning for you and that the driver is – I want to continue to make meaning for me because then I find out more about myself.

[Nancy Proctor arrives]

AJ: We also have failures, where we try to design things, put these frames in place and it’s just not what people take away, because of Constructivism. My boss told me about an experience she had in our park where a hummingbird came down and just floated there in front of her and she felt like she was looking into its soul or something. It was this emotional, memorable experience where she had communed with nature. That was not a program, it was not planned, it wasn’t framed. And she posed this question to me:  “Do we need programs?” I’m like, well, I am the Director of Programs, so I didn’t even know where to go with that question, but…

CB: Planned serendipity?

AL: Right like, how many hummingbirds can we employ? Or, you’ll design a school tour but the [kids are focused on “something else” not in the program]

MB: So did you start planning programs around that “something else”?


AL: Why fight the tide.

MB: I actually wanted to ask a question related to the museum lens but it might lead into the next question: What are the skills and behaviors associated with the museum lens? And that is – I think we’ve been talking about [the museum lens] from the visitors point of view. But is it possible to talk about the museum lens from the point of view of people working in museums? For example, the curator, or the conservator. Are those [roles] behaviors, do they require a museum lens? Does the curator deal with stuff inside the museum differently than the stuff in their garage? Is that important [to this conversation] or not?

CB: You’re talking about context?

MB: I’m talking about the museum lens and the way it makes you perceiving the things around you. We’ve been talking about looking at [everyday] things as visitors look at things in a museum. I’m wondering if a similar question can be asked, or if there is another facet of this that has to do with the way that people work in the real world. Why aren’t curators curating things in their neighborhoods? Why do they wait until they get to the museum to do that?

In some ways we’ve all become much more conservation minded since the 60’s and 70’s because of the environmental and cultural heritage movements, and got so worked up after seeing [a photograph] of our planet floating alone in space that now recycling is something we think about and do all the time. It’s constantly in the back of our minds and it’s a kind of framing of the planet. And so I wonder if the actions we take, not just looking at things, but [organizing and caring for things falls under the museum lens.] Its a question. Do those tasks fall under the museum lens?

NP: I think it does because I suspect one of the things that stops curators from curating in their communities is that they don’t feel they have permission. And that then points to the whole structure and hierarchy of power of institutions and people who work in them. And its probably one of those things that, in order to change museum practice you have to change the culture of the institution, so that question of permission becomes central to that.

MB: Do you think that people, who are not curators, tend to do that more because of the technologies we have available?

NP: Sure, I think this is why you see some very important but potentially disruptive things happening to people who are on the margins of museums. I think Museum Hack is an interesting business. They have no permission from anyone. Accept the people who are people paying lots of money to go on those tours.

CB: That’s very interesting. It reminded me of something I saw yesterday. It must be the anniversary of Instagram? 

TE: Yes, Its five years.

CB: Well, Instagram has created a book of interesting topics and to me that’s a way of curating life. Whether you’re doing it with intentionality. A lot of people are just taking pictures of their lives. Essentially you could say they are curating their lives.

TE: I think the word “curating has probably become overused, I mean everything’s curated, right, and I think curators are annoyed by that [laughs]. But I think its kind of giving them permission and giving them power in a way they didn’t have before.

NP:  I think it often used, like this case to mean “collecting” and the difference between a collector and a curator, at least one difference you might point to is, curators are also scholars and researchers, so there’s a certain amount of very focus, deliberate and structured study on a subject matter where as a collector is just collecting. You can collect without being a scholar.

CB: Point well taken.

TE: I think your distinction is very accurate. I think when people talk about “curating” they think about it like – If I take a picture of this light fixture Im going to frame it in a certain way and them I’m going to put some sort of filter over it so it sends you this message that I want to be sending you. So, Think people often think of curators as interpreting and designing but not necessarily researching and having scholarship.

LY: And there’s a subjective preference. And I think the word “curation” in the larger, non-scholarly sense implies a personality.

NP: A curator also has a responsibility though - to the collection, to its preservation and its growth. I’m mean that’s where [the term curator] comes from, [it means] to “care for”.

LY: I guess I meant that, culturally right now there are two ways of using that word “curator” or “curation” and, yes there is the history of care and scholarship and attachment to a collection and, in a way, almost an absence of expression of a personality. If Im a curator doing a show about American Art I’m not doing an exhibition about me, whereas if …

TE: Accept collections grow, and Im sure every museum has stories like this, but in our museum you’ll be like “Oh so and so was here 30 years ago and that was really his thing”. And there is some institutional reason, but its often driven by a curators own scholarly interests or, you know, what that curator thinks is important. Its not completely objective.

LY: Yes, and I think that’s framed differently at different times. There is an individual. How obscured is the agenda of one kooky curator vs how much of it is absorbed into a narrative with the museum as a whole. That’s what I was trying to get at. And the other is the more colloquial idea of curation. Like, you go to a bar and the playlist is “curated” by a DJ. Its an expression of that person.

NP: So that’s one where I would accept the use of the word curator because a DJ will have researched, will be quite knowledgeable, will be growing and preserving a collection. I mean, I don’t mind people calling themselves curators. For the purposes of this discussion I think it is quite useful to have some agreement on what we mean when we talk about curators in a museum context.

CB: I wonder how that word “curator when applied to the ubiquitous museum.

NP: So one thought that comes to mind quickly, that’s not very thought out at all, is, looking at things like crowdsourcing, I think we are starting to see that, typically its not a crowd that’s participating, it’s a very specific community of people who have an interest and an investment. So that might give us some path towards understanding what a curator in the community could be outside of a formal museum context. Its someone who is self selected who has a particular, heightened interest and commitment to something.

MB: Wikipedia is a good example of that.

NP: Exactly. Its less than one percent of the people who have Wikipedia editing accounts actually ever do anything with it. The majority of Wikipedia is written by a very small number of people.

MB: That brings to mind “content creation”, another thing we can associate with museum practices, but that’s an area where we all can create content. We might not all be curators, but we can all develop content, even though some of that content might be wrong or skewed. I guess this is still connected to the question about skills and behaviors [of the museum lens]. Is that something that’s important to discuss here? The unprecedented level of content creation that’s going on right now and how that plays into the importance of things, or whether something has value, outside the museum?

With curators there needs to be a certain level of scholarship or understanding before they are considered legitimate. Does that apply to content creators?

AJ: If you are looking at the purpose of your endeavor to be igniting curiosity, then you don’t have to be comprehensive, like we’ve typically thought of curation for centuries. There is this whole thing we’re experiencing now in society where curators are kind of forced with not being the only expert on something. And its threatening. I heard a news story the other day about dentists uprising because there’s some initiative where somebody can go to school for a year and do some dentistry. And they’re “But we’re experts!”. “Experts” are becoming degraded now, but I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing in that, it just depends on what your goal is. This is one thing I really enjoy about museums, the potential of museums, over what I used to do, being a formal classroom teacher, because I don’t have to access what they’ve learned. I only have to get them interested. So you create this environment where there’s enough there to get them to go learn on their own. That’s ultimately what you want to do - to get them to go off on their own paths. I think people, as non-experts, still do a really good job of creating that interest [and] spark curiosity.

TE: Actually, this is going back a little bit, but with this talk of curators, the way I’ve been thinking of the museum lens and ubiquitous museology is “how can we empower every single person to see the world through the museum lens”. But then, this talk of curators make me think, are we really trying to empower a small group of curators, for lack of a better word, to then connect with their own communities to get them to see that way? Are we trying to target literally everyone or trying to create this community of experts who are doing this for their community?

CB: I feel really uncomfortable with [the term] “curation” because we live in a society right now where we have certain groups of people who are privileged and have the power, and we don’t even know what others might bring to the table. And unfortunately our beloved museums are smack in the middle of that as the poster child of privilege. I am a curator by training. I know how to do research. I have letters after my name, but I realize the way I was taught how to look at the world and frame it and make sense of it is really based on how my teachers were trained and that it’s really a very narrow way of looking at things. So what brings me to [be interested] in this project is to have an opportunity of applying my skills but within a larger or different community, that is equal within conversation, because I don’t think “in” the museum, we can have the equal conversation.

NP: Maybe the problem isn’t with what a curator is in a classical traditional sense. It’s with attributing to it too much power, disproportionate to the importance of other voices and other input. So it sounds like, what you are really looking for is to be part of a larger conversation rather than a curator operating in a silo. You are giving up the position of mastery and I think that is what great teachers do, right?

AJ: Yeah, and we’re not experts. [I taught nine different subjects in seven years, all in social science. Anthropology, political science, history of sub-Saharan Africa, etc.. And I was learning the material two weeks before the kids. But there were kids in my class that went off to be anthropologists or to be political scientists. But the process of framing, the format, above being an expert, creating systems whereby people can become their own experts was more important than me, holding the knowledge and giving it to them.

NP: And that’s true of sciences in particular where the knowledge changes all the time. I cleaned out my bookshelves over the summer and I had my high school physics book and I was sure the libraries wont take it, because that knowledge is out of date now. Any good science teacher is not teaching you facts.

TE: It should be the same with history, it should be about this set of skills that help you think about history, because we are always interpreting and learning more.

I did want to come back to Carol, and what you were saying. “Curator” is probably not the right word, but this idea of having curators in communities actually gets away from what you’re talking about. I’m not talking about curators in the sense that you are a curator, but there is someone living in, say a rural neighborhood, and they become the curator and help that community see through the museum lens. That’s what I was meaning. They would be empowered to work with their own community to get their own communities to see that, rather than [getting everyone in the world to do it on their own].

MB: So you’re talking about “seeding” in a way.

TE: Yeah

MB: If museums were to be involved in this, then they would be more like instigators. They wouldn’t do anything other than spark interested in applying the museum lens. So you enter a community and somehow, you create a system to get people to understand how they can participate in that way. There have been a lot of studies that show that if people can engage in their own community its much more meaningful to them, its not removed, [presented] in a box someplace.

LY: I wrote down at the beginning that the idea of the  museum lens was something we noticed differently, we look at the world differently and it seems like another part of it is facilitating, or helping people, or helping yourself,  figure out what to do with that curiosity, whether its through group activities or going to another place. Its not only about looking differently, its about knowing what to do with curiosity. It seems to me that is a very important aspect - where the community comes in.

TE: In the beginning Carol was saying “we want people to think and then act”, so its not just about looking and thinking but getting them to act, whatever the action might be.

NP: But that’s where that pyramid, that I think Forester Research developed, directly relevant to social media and crowdsourcing, that [shows] the vast majority of people are at the bottom of the pyramid and they’re just lurking and listening and then only at the top do you get – and I think they use the word “curate” – at the top, in terms of content producers and then you have gradations in between. So maybe the museum has to take as its remit ways of inspiring everybody throughout that pyramid and just accepting that some people really aren’t going to go beyond just the listening and the learning, at least today, at least right now. So maybe we need a different metrics of success in how many people end up being community curators or changing the world [laughs].

TE: Its sort of like the opposite in museums, all about how many people come through the door, so [museums] only care about the bottom of the pyramid, we never look at the top. And so its figuring out how to look for success for the whole pyramid, and not just looking at one extreme or the other.

CB: And the challenge is that this needs to be a pyramid in three dimensions. The two dimensional pyramid is always about a certain mode or mean or medium. In social media there are a lot of people that participate by lurking. But that does not mean that in another aspect of their life they are not active participants, and it’s that cross-pollination of being a lurker on Facebook and…

NP: And going to the office and telling someone what you read on Facebook.

CB: Right.

NP: Or commenting on it.

CB: Right.

TE: Or deciding I’m not going to buy this product anymore because I read this thing on Facebook, but I didn’t comment. No one will necessarily know I’m taking this action.

CB: So I think that that “lurker” segment has never disturbed me because I have a Pollyanna view of the world and feel, even if people are lurking, it’s perking in them. And the ubiquitous museum is getting people to look at things in new ways and then over time, if there are enough of these experiences, that they learn enough skills, that then they feel they have permission to [act]. It will pop out in surprising ways that I can never imagine so I wouldn’t even want to create a metric for it.

NP: There is actually some data from one project I worked on that supports that, and this is really old, this is 2005; we were introducing multimedia tours on PDA’s to the Tate Modern, and one of the bits of functionality we were trialing was book-markings. So, it was a pretty basic test because no special content had been made for the purposes of consuming post-visit. Essentially, as you went around, if you liked something you could bookmark it and what you would get was just a link to information on the website and it was information that had always been there so it was not a great post-visit experience, but what we wanted to test was, how many people bookmarked, and how many people clicked the link on the emails they got post-visit. About half the people bookmarked and about half of those people clicked the links. But, what the researcher found when she did the follow-up interviews two months later was that people, even if they hadn’t clicked the link, had saved the email. And it was a kind of promise to themselves, on a rainy day, when I have time, I’m going to come back to this. And that there was a deep psychological affect of a commitment to the museum experience and the collection and in the whole institution. So it does really bolster what you say about people who seem inactive. There is something going on there.

LY: Is there also a sense of gathering stuff and just waiting for the right context, like, I’m interested in this painting, I bookmark it, maybe I don’t even know what I’m going to do with it but then a few months down the road… Its not necessarily that “hmm I wish I could go back to the Tate”, but there is some conversation, like “oh I want to show you this painting”. Its not just voyeurism its gathering stuff, but you don’t know the context for it yet.

NP: Actually its an affirmation of your curiosity isn’t it? It’s a promise to yourself to follow up on something that sparks your interest.

LY: That seems absolutely right to me but when I think about my own process, often I don’t follow up on things. What I do is I remember them and later something triggers it. I’m just like a trawler. I just gather and I’ll hold onto these things and suddenly something will open up the chain and I’ll see I’ve got all of these things here that are relevant to the conversation or that you might find [relevant]. And so, I guess what I’m wondering is, is there an active way where you are following up afterwards because you are interested and you just don’t have the time right now? So its just a matter of holding on and as life happens to you…

TE: Its just coincidental.

NP: So we’re back to that serendipity. I made a note when that came up before. I think serendipity is a really critical concept in an economy of plenty and surplus. That’s what we’ve got now. There’s just so much out there. I did a PHD because I thought once in my life I want to master a subject and I want to know everything about it. Of course the only thing you learn is how much you still need to learn about a topic, right.


So it was a complete illusion of mastery and that has really just accelerated with the internet. There’s so much information, there are so many experiences, there are so many communities you can join, so many voices you can listen to and serendipity seems to be a primary mode of operation in that context. We’re no longer living in communities where the biggest library within several hundred miles has fewer than five thousand books. You can have the illusion of mastery if so little of the world was literate or had few books or few resources to travel.

MB: So serendipity helps us make decisions. Some people who are better at making decisions in serendipitous situations than others. For example I think most art making occurs through serendipity, people stumbling upon something and recognizing it as “right” or “enough”. Just think about someone painting a portrait, or a bowl of fruit, and they’re trying to get the highlight right on an apple. They put a dab of paint down but that’s not right, so they wipe it off and try again and that’s not right and they wipe it off and they keep doing this until they make the mistake that works. Knowing whether to take advantage of whatever happens, accident or not, is really the trick.

TE: At the Center for Invention and Innovation, people always talk about – “Oh Kevlar was invented by accident, the Post-It note was invented by accident, and I think this is something we talk a lot about in the Center that actually these weren’t “accidents”. It wasn’t maybe the intentional outcome but if you don’t have a prepared mind and if you’re not looking through this… call it the museum lens, or the inventors lens… if your mind isn’t open to that you will miss the opportunity. And so I’m seeing a lot of parallels here.  So, you think in a certain way, so you keep all this stuff collected even though you don’t know what you’re doing with it but it’s the way that you see the world and so, how do you equip other people with that viewpoint? [You] might not be able to use this now but you can go back to it and then it will prove useful.

JL: I know a guy who is helping with data collection for radio astronomy through [Johns] Hopkins and the current telemetry for radio telescopes generates so much data that you cannot actually use the Internet to move it to a storage location. So they’re doing hard drives in trucks, and it’s also more that they can use. They could pare it down for the purposes of current science to stuff that would fit on a very high bandwidth internet connection, but they think that there’s a possibility, in like 20 years, they will have sufficient computational power to sift through the unusably enormous pile of data that they have. And then it will come in handy in some way. So they have a serious data pack-rat issue happening.

AJ: Data hoarding! 


NP: That’s a thing! You can hire consultants to help you deal with your institutions data-hoarding problem, cause its very expensive.

LY: I was just talking with a fellow graduate student about the seventeen versions of each paper that you can’t let go of.

NP: Yeah, you’re creating haystacks to find your needles in.

LY: But on the other hand, to frame it differently, you’re facilitating serendipitous…or setting up what will be serendipitous moments.

NP: If there is a goal to this museum lens project… I used to think, when I was doing some teaching, that my goal was to teach critical thinking, not to teach information, but I wonder if, instead of that, we actually should say – teach people how to make best use of serendipity. 

AJ: It’s a creative skill, I think Linda Norris would say.

NP: Yeah. Another reaction could be to just be overwhelmed, terrified, and I think that’s part of why you see such an emotional reaction on people who are like, “I just don’t have time for social media”. You know? Its not obligatory. When you see this deep emotional thing, and I think it is precisely that feeling of being overwhelmed – “I cant master this and therefore it is a threat to me”.

TE: “I don’t know what to do with all this information”

NP: And there’s a deep political effect of getting people to give up mastery as you have as a curator. Right?

AJ: I guess you can teach that, the “making connections” thing. It’s really hard. Everybody’s hardwired for thinking that learning happens in certain places, schools museums, not [out in the world] even though most of the learning in your life is out in the world, constructing different meanings as you go. But people compartmentalize things so much that people to teach the skill of making connections between disparate things that don’t seem to go together.

CB: I keep coming back to the word that Nancy used and that’s “permission”. Having permission to make meaning out of wherever you are, and having permission in a park or at the dinner table or wherever you happen to be. Its permission and value, and so then the question is, how do you energize or activate spaces that provide permission and say this is valuable use of your time and you have permission to do something with it, like you’re example of being stuck in traffic and looking at the teddy bear. You gave yourself permission. But then you’ve already been awakened to this idea that everything is your museum, so to speak, so how do you create three-dimensional space. That’s your question. How do you create these spaces that…

MB: Or create a mindset.

CB: Yes, it’s a mindset. So we know what we don’t need it to be. We don’t need to put labels on all the plants and say we have now created a ubiquitous museum.

TE: But I think its also not only giving people permission but that their meaning is valuable, whatever meaning or interpretation they come up with is okay, because in the museum or anywhere there is interpretation, it’s the curators view, it’s the institutions view and we think that we have to think that way for it to be right. This idea that, not only can you have permission to look around and make meaning, but that its ok if my meaning if different than your meaning. At least to me that’s important.

MB: So what kind of skill or behavior would you call that?

TE: I don’t know if anyone else is familiar with the 21st Century Skills movement. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is a fairly recent educational movement. Its gotten completely overshadowed by Common Core and every other new standard that’s come along for the next generation of science centers but their idea behind it is that, which really aligns with the work we are doing at the Lemelson Center is that its not really about the content, its about the skills that help kids develop because the content changes so quickly and we can find the facts on our phone, but how do you apply the facts and interpret them and use them to solve problems. So, the 21st Century Skills have different pockets of skills. Its things like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, communication, what some people would call “soft skills” – I hate that term, because it makes them sound not important but its not about the stuff that you know, its how you use the stuff that you know and relate to the world and to other people. That’s what keeps coming back into my head. All these 21st Century Skills that museums are good at fostering.

NP: There was just an article in the New York Times that someone sent me recently about all the job growth over the last twenty years have been in jobs that are both knowledge and communication. If you just have one or the other, those job opportunities have gone down, but if you combine the two…

TE: And every single year there’s some new study that comes out of like, CEO’s that are interviewed who say its not [that] their employees don’t have the knowledge, its that they don’t have the skills to apply the knowledge so its this idea of skill building that’s becoming more and more important.

NP: So, you said a word, Carol that I thought was important which was “activating”. Because I think one of the dangers in giving people permission, you’re still in a position of power, right?

CB: Inviting people… I invite you into the museum because otherwise youre not worthy of coming.

NP: Yeah, and its easy to be a little condescending, so how does one truly, genuinely abdicate the position of mastery, without being, at the same time, irresponsible?

CB: Yeah where’s that balance? And what I was wondering is, is there a cascade that we want in these spaces? Do we want a space that grants permission, that builds skills, that then assesses personal values and then the fourth is sharing it and building upon it, which is where we are today in our society. We re-Tweet something, we make a quote. In my utopia, that’s an essential part of what we are trying to do, because if we don’t… In the olden days it was the curator who shared it, because that curator shared it with other curators, or wrote a paper and so shared their knowledge to create an intellectual knowledge base. So in our project are we saying its not enough to make your meaning? And your meaning is different from my meaning and that’s all ok, but we have to share that, because otherwise its just “I’m going off in my direction and you’re going off in your direction” and there’s no sense of building a shared understanding.

NP: So maybe this actually does get right to the whole concept of the museum lens and that, one of the things I liked about it was the presumption that there is valuable stuff and experiences to be had out in the world and similarly, if we make the assumption, which is absolutely correct, that people have valuable contributions to make and relevant knowledge to share then its not a matter of granting them permission, it’s a matter of [pause]. I don’t even want to say an archeology or an uncovering because its there. You almost end up like “Columbus discovered the Americas”.

MB: It’s a recognition.

NP: It’s a recognition, yeah. And there was something said earlier about systems that have been defined by wealthy white men. But the reality is that women and people of color have always been part of dominant discourses. There’s always been people from otherwise marginated groups who were important scientists, who were artists, who were leaders in various ways, its just we’ve rewritten the history books so they’re not in there.

CB: Well, and the interesting thing is that, yes women and people of color have participated and continue to participate but they do it in a way that they have figured out a way to work within the existing system, not bringing their own. And I think that’s what so interesting about this potential informal world that we’re [talking about], because it doesn’t require that you know Linnaean taxonomy, and it can value Native American approaches to these things and not as an alternative, not as an either or, but as an “and”, and where that takes us I’m not quite sure, but I just feel that it will help us move beyond some of the pain.

LY: You said it doesn’t require Linnaean taxonomy. I’m curious, not to expose my own assumptions, but do people have what it does require? Not to try and narrow it or fix it but…

AJ: What is “it”?

LY: The museum lens

NP: So, maybe you don’t know Linnaean taxonomy but you’re a master of some other system. So some level of expertise is always required.

TE: Or is it? Lets say you’re walking along the street and there’s these six different plants, and you don’t really know what they’re called or how they’d be classified scientifically. I used to teach preschool and its almost how you introduce very young kids. They cannot understand taxonomy but they can look for similarities, like “Well these would all go together because they’re all the same color or the leaves are the same shape or these leaves are shiny but these leaves aren’t. That’s very basic but, so maybe you don’t understand the way they would be scientifically classified but you can observe similarities and differences, and you’re not going to go out and teach a class but you’ve made sense of it in your own mind and maybe you’re having a conversation with somebody about that, or “this one has flowers and this one doesn’t or I’m wondering why they both bloom in October”. And so you’re making sense of it in your own way, in a way that’s meaningful to you. To me it doesn’t matter if its correct or in the right system but what matters is if you have a conversation with somebody or you look it up cause you’re interested to know more [or you say] I want to plant that in my yard so I’m going to learn more, so.. Which is not necessarily what I would say if someone was in this building, but I think outside it doesn’t matter.

NP: So, the populist and the snob in me are constantly at war. And, I would like to ask what things are almost absolutes in some way? That there are skills that people can have that help them make sense of the world and participate in certain discourses. And then there are other knowledge sets or ideologies that can frankly obscure it so if all you’ve ever been taught is Creationism and you’re confronted with dinosaur bones, you conclude that early humans, that Adam and Eve coexisted with the dinosaurs, right, so at some point some level of expertise and scholarship is actually really important [laughs].

TE: Is that the job of the museum lens? To me the idea of the museum lens is not to teach everybody everything or get them to become experts but its getting people to look at the world in a different way, observe things they didn’t, or make connections that then will maybe interest them enough to spur them to go learn more or to become an expert. I just think that, if we put all these constraints about “it only works if you get the right answer” then why not have people just come to museums?

NP: And a lot of people do.

LY: What I was thinking you were saying, and what I was trying to say too, is not that there’s a certain amount of knowledge that you bring but a structure by which you know. So, at least for me, what we’ve been saying is that the museum lens wants to do things like [introduce] displacement from the mundane or ordinary life. We talk a lot about connecting with other people, sharing, constructing meaning together. That’s what I was talking about as a requirement, not “Do you know one plus one equals two?” and so just thinking about it on a much broader level.

AJ: Maybe one thing we want to do with the museum lens or the museum mind, is having the objective of breaking down categories, because one thing we have with museums is, we have a science museum, we have a history museum, and we also have categories of people who are interested in museums.

MB: But out there in the world, and even in here, its all mixed up together.

AJ: Its all mixed up and we know this but then we continue to have the categories and, you talking about pre-school really reminds me of the fact that a museum mind is something that needs to be developed really early, because from a very early [age] kids are not nuanced in any way. They’re obsessed with putting things in categories. And we spur that on by quizzing them on animal sounds or things that are completely not real – “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys”. It’s a constant thing with small children because we want to make things easier for them to understand.

We had this group of 3rd graders come out to the farm and, you know, kids books always have pictures of farm animals. There’s a red barn, there’s a pink pig, there’s a Holstein cow, the black and white kind. So the kids drew us picture of what they saw at our farm and our pigs are not pink, they’re a heritage breed, they’re hairy and brown, our barn is brown, our cows are brown, they all have horns. But the pictures the kids drew were all exactly like the story book. Pink pig.

MB: They drew what they knew, not what they saw.

AJ: Yes. They wrote things about what they saw. And they drew us pictures of what they saw on the farm that day which was not what they saw, because they were so overpowered by… 

NP: The received language for that.

AJ: Yes.

MB: That’s a developmental thing. Kids do that. It’s well known that early on children will draw what they know and not what they see.

LY:  Its almost like they are seeing categories, right? Like this is a “pig” and the thing that means pig, the category of pig is this pink blob.

AJ: We have adults coming to the farm who cannot make sense of what’s there. It doesn’t compute. Once you get them as an adult you have to be in the mode of “myth busting” in a lot of different ways. Science, right? All these skills, a lot of them are bred real early with kids. These ideas have got to have a way of translating to younger audiences if its really a mindset and not just a thing that museum people do.

NP: I was just thinking about what you said about it being a developmental thing that might be really critical here. Kids do go through, its one of the tests they give about where you are developmentally, where you draw a picture of your family and how much detail there is and so what is perhaps a tool that’s necessary to successful passage through various developmental phases at one age can become a sort of crutch later in life, so do we define it more as a problem of people not having emerged from a certain developmental phase rather than one of there being prisoner to some perceived wisdom or vocabulary of way of looking at the world.  Because the way you would approach that as an educator would be very different if its one vs the other.

TE: I think we have to categorize things. We cannot get through life if we do not understand the way things can be grouped. It’s a really essential skill, but I think what we can do is show that there isn’t just one way to categorize things. Going back to my plants example, it would be ok to put all the flowering plants together and the non-flowering plants together, or it could be, these all have something red on them and these don’t. So, yes there is the scientifically correct way to categorize them but there are also these other ways and they’re all valuable if you can explain why you’ve done it. When I taught young kids, that was something we really talked about. I used to do a “build your own museum” exercise in my classroom. We had these little objects in little groups and they would all curate differently, but we celebrated them all the same because its all about what you bring, what interests you, what knowledge you come with. So its not saying [we should] have no categories, but showing there’s value in different ways of categorizing.

AJ: Maybe it’s explaining that categories are arbitrary in many ways. I mean, race is an arbitrary idea. Even when you’re talking about plants, scientific classifications are in fact arbitrary. What is a weed? It’s a very subjective idea.

[Michael Burns steps out]

TE: But they are useful. I mean not every category is, but I feel like there is value in it, so how do you balance – its arbitrary, BUT we do this for a reason because…

NP: Maybe you give it context. You don’t say they’re arbitrary, they’re contextual.

AJ: Maybe that’s a better word. But they are human created. Its telling the story of how the system was created. There was this guy Linnaeus and he thought that this was the way you should do it and that’s the way we do it now, but there are other ways. Maybe its as simple as deconstructing… I mean it’s a lot more work, right?


NP: But that’s where we come to critical thinking, right? You can also explain that this system has its affordances, much like I can do certain things with this pen that I can’t do with a big fat Crayon. I can try to use a big fat Crayon to write this much information on this page, but its going to be really tough. So, its not that you can’t get Linnaeus’s system to do something that it was not originally intended for, but its just going to be a lot more work and it might not produce the results you expect. If you can understand that then its less an absolute, like a religion.

AJ: It might make being progressive a lot easier for people because I think so many categories are the spark of dispute in a lot of ways. People who I grew up with were thinking Pluto was a planet and don’t want to give it up. But if you grew up being taught in some way that there were different ways of doing things… I don’t know. I think I grew up thinking more that way, maybe more than others. [Categories do] create a lot of conflict.

NP: It certainly shapes your attitude towards authority. So, kid’s who, early on, were seeing people who were supposed to be in positions of authority but [didn’t] always live up to that [laughs], are probably going to be more suspicious of all sorts of structures of power.

LY: Well…categories are very powerful even if they’re contextual. They do produce meaning.

NP: They make certain kinds of storytelling easier, certain kinds of meaning making easier.

TE: Going back to the science again, then the scientific community can all speak one language. I mean, how hard would it be to talk about plants if we didn’t have this common way around the world of categorizing?

LY: But maybe we’re just reinforcing them when we talk about it for so long. I just keep thinking, positive and negative, plants on the one hand and something like class, or race on the other. Like gender, they can be bent.

AJ: It’s a real discussion of outliers and why they exist. Rather than trying to make categories, discussing why some things can shift.

CB: So, as you’re talking I’m remembering a book that Clare Brown shared with us during the [ubiquitous museology] charrette. It’s a Sesame Street book, and its Grover’s museum. He goes to the “everything glass” room, or the “plastics” room, or the “all things that float” room and he makes his museum. So as you’ve been talking I had that in my mind and also just - Ok so the museum lens produces products, it produces exhibits and we can say that they’re slanted or biased. But what are they? They provide a system to make meaning, whether it’s the “plastics” room, whether its Linnaeus’s taxonomy, and that a museum lens means that we celebrate curiosity and that it also frames and provides context. Maybe those are two different things. Maybe they’re the same thing. And something we had talked about earlier was this idea of empathy. You talked about everything you do at the [Accokeek Foundation’s] farm, is to put people into other people’s shoes. And I think that those seem to be the tenets that we use, at least as museum professionals, maybe there are others.

AJ: We hope. I think good museums do that. This question of “what do museum’s do better”, there’s such a wide variety of museums. Some do a lot better job at framing as a jumping off point than being the comprehensive content dump. And even smaller museums, or Museum Hack and things like that. There are so many different varieties of things like that. I think museums have tried to be like formal institutions a bit too much. Like schools, where you go there and you get the content.

NP: There’s a very complex context and history to that. If you don’t present yourself as an institution and something serious and important, nobody’s going to give you money and you will cease to be an institution pretty quickly.

AJ: Right and you have to prove impact and al of that. Yeah. [pause] I was reading a book that had a chapter on this group that does tours in Compton for white people [laughs]. They put people on a bus and teach them about gangs. But it’s a group of former gang members that created the group and they do it for altruistic purposes and they help people who are getting out of jail and things like that. But it’s a total exoticism of that world. So, I think we have to be careful with the museum lens, not in just taking people into an environment that they’re not familiar with, but exoticizing is one of the dangers we have in doing that.

TE: To me, the way I think of the museum lens is like, I’m going into a foreign environment but nobody’s providing then interpretation for me. I don’t have a former gang member telling me what to think. I’m looking at it through my own museum lens. The museum lens is very individual. So maybe it’s a common set of skills and behaviors, but the lens is different for each one of us.

AJ: But, an individual person could have those same…

TE: But, is the purpose of the museum lens to get people to think in a certain way or is it like, I don’t really like the way you’re thinking about it but that’s “your” museum lens. I have to sort of leave it there. Which means that people are probably going to think things that we don’t like. But at what point…

NP: Yeah, where do you draw the line?

TE: For me, honestly, that’s ok. First of all, how could we ever control what everybody thinks, but I think the first step is just getting people to look through the lens that most people don’t do.

NP: Well, people read against the grain all the time. I do think the question of “where do you draw the line?” is important. You could go back to the dinosaur example, that at a certain point a museum of natural history has to take a stand and say, “No, I’m sorry, its not ok to teach Creationism. That’s just wrong and we’re not going to di that at this museum. We’re not going to put you in jail for believing it, but there is a line that’s drawn there.

TE: But that’s within a museum’s mission and that’s completely appropriate and they should not do anything differently. But it’s different than you walking out, you make this discovery, and you make conclusions on your own, that may be wrong, but… The museum isn’t telling you its ok. The museum [mission] isn’t there at all… Yes, they’re there as a resource, so then if you decide you want to learn more, you’re going to hear their message but, the museum has no control over what you think or what you do outside it.

NP: Of course it doesn’t. And I think one of the sad things about museums is that they tend to think that they do.

TE: Right.

NP: That they can actually get people to think a certain way. But I wonder if what you’re saying, the logical conclusion is that in order to have this completely non-judgmental, non-dictatorial museum experience, you need a museum without a mission. Cause as soon as you have a mission then you do start drawing some lines.

TE: Well, I think some of the conversations we’ve had in previous meetings about [ubiquitous museology] asked, is there a particular institution or group of institutions that [are] behind this project and, if there were, lets say the Smithsonian decides to sponsor an initiative they want to take, well then of course everything has to be presented through the Smithsonian lens. But what I’ve sort of been advocating which is much more difficult, frankly, is that nobody really sponsors it, but as a community we’ve decided this set of skills and behaviors are important for people to get, so how do we provide opportunities for them to learn these skills, devoid of a specific institutional mission. Because otherwise it just becomes another curated experience. Then its no different than coming into the museum and being told to look at the world in a specific way.

NP: But are we trying to find something that’s radically different from the museum experience that’s dominant today, or are we looking to nuance, to tweak. Is this evolutionary or revolutionary? Because the way you just said that implied that you don’t want to have just another curated experience.

AJ: But we’re talking about putting frames around things, which is in itself limiting. Maybe that should be discussed then. Is that part of it or not?

NP: The first frame of the museum is its mission.

AJ: Even if the museum lens idea is a thing, and we’re talking about parameters, what is it? So, the very act of putting parameters on it is already limiting it in some way.

NP: When you do that strategically to focus energy in a certain direction, right, so that’s why museums develop certain missions because they’re saying, “I’m not trying to do everything that can be done, I’m trying to do this thing.”

LY: I don’t know if this is quite relevant to what’s just been said, but it occurred to me that one thing that we’re talking around is that the museum lens is a “sense” that the environment can somehow be interpreted or used, … just to amplify the interpretive potential of the environment you are in. The museum lens [exists] at the basic, most abstract level, and then the question of “framing” is what you do with that.  Interpretation. So the question is do you share that, do you keep it? How do you express it. What does it make you think about a thing. So, maybe some of those frames come out afterwards and they’re about shaping what happens to interpretation.

AJ: Carol, you’ve been really good at encapsulating some of these things. So, I’m curious about your thoughts about this.

CB: I like this, very much, because it seems that, going back to “the mission” of this ubiquitous museum, and as Michael was saying, if the world is a museum, then the question is what skills do people need, to see the world as a museum? This idea “amplify the interpretive potential of the world around us”. So then, what becomes the overlay or, I was thinking of the picture frame. What does the picture frame, functionally have to look like? What are the three or four things we have to think about if we decide that the parking lot, right out here, has the potential to be museumized. What would that mean. We know what we don’t want it to be. So, what does, putting the picture frame on it do? If the goal is to amplify its potential there may be different strategies. And I would say that, in answer to your question, what I’m hearing is that it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. Because we will use the skill sets that we know and maybe build some others, but we will take a designer’s perspective to say, “well what could we add to this to make people stop, be intentional, think and act.

NP: That’s a nice series of goals there. Stop. Be intentional. Think and act.

AJ: You’re still “the designers”, is what you’re saying. There are still designers in this process. Somebody’s deciding that the parking lot is the place.

TE: Well, I think the ultimate goal, and this is where I get really hung up, is that, if we put anything in that parking lot, a sign or anything, then we’re doing nothing differently than we’re doing inside museums. And maybe that’s an interim step we have to take before people will naturally look at the parking lot through new eyes.

NP: Tricia wants revolution.

TE: To me that’s the goal, if we have to be there we’re not doing anything different and we really aren’t encouraging people to think this way independently. To me, the ultimate goal is, how do you get people to stop in a parking lot and look at it in a new way without anything there. And I get that that’s a big leap from where we are now. So how do you…

AJ: You can do preloading. Not to make this too concrete, but there is always stimulus that can be provided. You do have to say “This is what we’re doing”. And what are we doing afterwards, but maybe the place itself is just a blank slate.

CB: I think it is developmental. I think it’s iterative. Where we’re struggling with what are the transition steps to get from where we are now, to this goal. And we’ve already made some of those leaps. We have the museum activities, inside the walls. We have museum activities that take place outside the walls. You know, we label the plants or, I’m thinking about a project the Exploratorium has been doing in a community that is having to create a park and then figuring out if they can add, Exploratorium type exhibits in this outdoor space. Nobody knows if its going to work but that’s what they’re trying. That’s the next iteration. Its not just the sign. But, then I think we go to the next step. And this is a step where I don’t have skills, and that is the skill-set of the 3 dimensional designer. People like you and Michael and others. You put a picture frame around an environment. Architects do that all the time. Whether its successful or not, we can all argue, but they look at space and they say, this needs to be a space for gathering or this needs to be a space for contemplation and then they make decisions that then are effective or not. And I think that is the next step of, instead of taking art and putting it into the environment they take that environment and we [frame it]. And I think that’s where we’re sort of struggling. Which is a big struggle. Because if we have enough of those, then your goal is met by enough people engaging in these places that are outside the museum walls. They don’t have to “go to” a place. And then they’ve been taught and it can be reinforced in all the distributed network of educational schools, museums, libraries, the web, all of those things. So it’s really creating a shared process of looking at the world and making meaning for it. But I think the next step has to be, how do you create designed spaces? How do you take this parking lot and make it a designed, intentional space? And we know the answer isn’t in what’s in my wheelhouse, which is to put a sign there.

TE: Right [laughs] I think the way you articulated that is really good and I think, for me, some of the frustration in our previous meetings was, for example, at the charrette, we were all basically creating museum experiences in different environments. So that’s when I left saying “Ok, this is awesome but how is this any different than what we are doing in the building, so I think you are right. You can’t be revolutionary, like I would like us to be, all of a sudden, but I think talking about those transition points is very helpful to think about. Ok this might be our ultimate goal, but what are the steps from where we are now.

[Michael Burns returns]

NP: It depends on how you define “we”. I think you need both evolution and revolution. You need museum hacks getting to really look at what we’re doing and maybe getting [us] a little nervous so that we actually take some action. But we also obviously need to continue to iterate internally. I actually really like this question, “What do museums do better or differently than other institutions” because if we could get confident in our response to that question then we can start identifying what museums are doing well or not. It might be an entirely different kind of institution or approach or revolution or whatever.

JL:  I think presenting things without getting too didactic about them is a thing that museums do better than almost any other institution when they’re doing it well.  I guess there a [lot of] curation in the traditional museum because you have things that are there for whatever reason and, questionable power dynamics aside, that kind of makes then inherently interesting. But getting back to the ubiquitous thing, maybe the spaces don’t need to be designed. Maybe the point of the ubiquitous museum is helping people know what to look for. Because when you think of a place like a forest, which is typically not “designed” although sometimes managed in ways that are not obvious, you have all the pieces of the forest working together and if you’ve been briefed on, say – look for the canopy tree, its got the leaves at the top, and the lower level plants have big leaves because they’re trying to get every scrap of light that’s made it through the canopy. If you haven’t been told this in advance you’ll walk into it and maybe see a bunch of trees, maybe you’ll see some spectacular shrubs or a flower you like, but you won’t get the system. So I guess part of the educational set-up for the ubiquitous museum would be priming people to interpret the system. The thing you want to avoid is, for example, using augmented reality to put a bunch of text panels on everything. Every time I think about augmented reality and how people are doing it that’s the pitfall. Text panels everywhere.

TE: Tied to what we were saying when talking about the parking lot, I was thinking, well, what sort of intervention would I be ok with. And even a big question spray-painted on the asphalt, I mean what do you see. What would get people to actually look?

JL: Like this one is asphalt as opposed to brick or concrete or cobblestone or something. Or, somebody thought really hard about the spaces used for parking places to maximize efficiency vs not having to crowd people.

NP: So you’re actually giving us a concrete example of using AR everywhere to put labels everywhere and that’s helpful to me, because it made me think about a different concrete example. So the Brooklyn museum has an app right now called ASK. You only use it in the museum, and what it is is a conduit to a bank of art historians who will answer your questions as you go around. And so I often go through the world and wonder things and there is no easy means of asking a question and getting an answer. But if we were able to take that as a starting point for what the museum lens is, that it is somehow a tool for asking questions.

AJ: People can be really distracted by their desire to know. Labels can be really helpful. At our site we have no labels. There’s nothing to tell you what this house is, what year [was it built]. So when you walk onto the site, you kind of feel “Are we supposed to be here?” “Is this actually someone’s house?”  People are consumed with their curiosity. The first person they see, they’re like, “What is this?” “Where are we?” And its almost like we cant get to the next level of the real meaningful stuff unless – Here’s this piece of paper that explains all this stuff so we can get past that.

NP: Scaffolding

CB: Yeah, it’s scaffolding. Answering the question; Where do you put SUE? (the t-rex skeleton) in the Field Museum of Natural History. The curatorial team wanted to put it in the exhibition because that would be like a carrot.

MB: Plus, that’s where the dinosaur hall was.

CB: Yeah, but they realized all of the other really interesting [exhibitions] and activities, everyone bi-passed because you’re here to see SUE. That’s what you’re going to go see. Now once that initial curiosity was satisfied, then you can settle down to go to the next step. I always call it “feeling safe and smart” in an environment, So, you want to say, “Yes, this is there, and this is there, and the bathrooms are there, but the one thing you wanted to see is right here. I think what NMNH with the gems and minerals hall was really great. They put the Hope Diamond first. So, if its on your life-list, you’re “ Ok, done it”…

TE: It’s the same thing with the ruby slippers here.

LY: When I was designing I kept thinking [about] itchy objects. The ones that, if you scratch that itch, you can pay attention.

NP: You have to meet the visitor where they are.

LY: Yeah and once you’ve scratched the itch you learn something too. So, this is what the Hope Diamond is and then you walk through the rest of the gems and minerals hall and you realize why the Hope Diamond is special… It’s scaffolding, but its also taking care of someone’s understanding.

[Carol Blossert steps out]

LY: The third question [“What do museums do better, or differently than other institutions”] got me thinking about a question of what the larger concept of museum is. At least what this question would reveal is what is it about the museum that you actually do want to see or reconfigure in a site [outside the museum]. To me that’s what that question starts to get at.

TE: Well, why should we do this? This is like a very “Inside Baseball” conversation because we all work for museums and obviously we see the value in what we do, but why would museums do this and what could museums do that might be different from, say a city government or a school or…

LY: To me, the question brought up, why is it called a “museum lens”? Why not a…

JL: Liberal Arts Lens.

LY: Right, or a Humanism Lens, or Social Activist Lens and so that question was important for a person who doesn’t know much about the project or is on the outside, clarifying what’s “museumy” that’s worth saving or transforming. Not to say we have to talk about that, but I had more questions, rather than answers for that one.

MB: But with the question “what do museums do better or differently than other institution?” does that help? Would there be an answer in there?

NP: I think it’s a good question.

MB: Why do you think schools bring students to museums?

LY: At the Walters [Museum of Art], the assumption was that many students come from backgrounds where they don’t go outside their own neighborhood. Their geography is quite small. Also, at the Walters they did a lot of audience research and found that they really weren’t connecting to people in the local neighborhoods, they were attracting tourists, but the people in the community didn’t feel that they were welcome there, or they didn’t feel it was relevant to them.  And so [it made] community interaction mandatory, but once the students were there the student docent interaction was very [welcoming] - You can be here and either can have opinions based a deep knowledge of [art], or be like, “I hate that painting”, or “oh my god that person’s naked”. Those are conversations that are allowed. It was partly about moving the demographics around differently and also trying to actively make it a place where people were able to say what they thought and work from there.

TE: I was thinking about it from a different perspective like, why does a teacher want to bring [students to museums?] and I have very cynical thoughts on that… as a break, as a reward. I think museums do so much work… and get so schizo-focused on aligning everything so closely to what schools are doing and testing and standards, which I think helps teachers justify the field trip but I don’t know that the museum visit actually contributes much to that.

AJ: I don’t think it should, actually.

TE: Well, I know but its like, “Ok, we will do this because it’s the only way you’ll come here, because you have to justify the expenses to your administration about why [you] are coming, but then we’re actually not. What we’re doing here is probably not going to get kids to do better on the test, frankly. That doesn’t mean its not a valuable experience, it doesn’t line up with the expectations and what we say we’re doing.

AJ: I conducted a few focus groups with teachers about how they choose where to bring their kids and we asked them about the standards. Of course they have to be able to justify them. That’s basic. But they are so creative with the way they do that it almost doesn’t matter. Where I was working there was a Frito Lay factory near by and one of the most popular field trips was going to the Frito Lay factory, because you get to go and eat chips.

MB: Well, its also really cool to see how something so common is made.

AJ: Yeah, its a factory, you get to see the steps, but, it probably related less to the kid’s curriculum than we did, but the teachers were finding ways. So that’s a really good example of how, if you have a really cool experience, the teachers know the kids are going to love, that you don’t have to sell it much more than that. They’re just excited to be there. And year after year, they kept coming back. Kids had great things to say. And that’s what you want.

NP: That was when you were at the farm?

AJ: That was at the Atlanta History Center. Now I work at the National Colonial Farm run by the Accokeek Foundation. A very small organization and we are about 70% funded by the National Park Service.

NP: So it’s a working colonial- style farm?

AJ: It is. It’s not like Williamsburg where there is a whole town, its one residence. We interpret one family that lived there in 1770, who was relatively poor, and we have living history interpreters, but their whole goal is to get people talking about the environment.

MB: Was that always the goal? Did that goal change?

AJ: It has definitely changed. I changed it. We’ll see how it goes. There’s two farms on the site, a farm we’ve had since the 1990’s that grows sustainable vegetables for market and involves people, like volunteers, in growing those to teach people how to grow sustainably. And then there is this colonial farm and they were having an identity issue with these two kinds of things going on. How do we make sense of that? And so they hired me to make sense of it.

NP: So the colonial farm was not sustainable? No, they were using all kinds of pesticides and there were two separate cultures of staff too. There was the organic farm staff that was totally hippy granola and then there were the history people who were completely “that doesn’t have anything to do with me”.

LY: So, with the colonial farm, the façade was that they were doing a colonial project, but behind the scenes…

AJ: Yes, to maintain all the tobacco and the gardens and all that.

NP: So they weren’t farming the way you would have in 1770. It just looked that way.

AJ: Right and you still cant because of the fact that in 1770 you would have had hundreds of acres and when your soil was worn out you just moved to the next area. We just have this small area now and we have to keep farming in the same place over and over, so we use techniques like, we use biochar and different composts to replenish the soil in highly trafficked areas. 

NP: Its an interesting story, I hope you’ll tell it to the industry, like how it went, when you get to the point when you have an answer to that question. Its radical, changing an institutions mission.

MB: So, the idea that you use something, whether its an object or a place, as a platform for something else… I was just talking earlier today about a project we’re working on that uses an historic event as a way to talk about what’s going on today and spur sociopolitical action. But that happens all the time, right? That’s part of what a museum does. And  in regards to the question before when we were talking earlier [about reasons for schools to visit museums] if you come to a museum, regardless of what the teachers or the museums say, its not about coming and suddenly understanding a topic more deeply. It might be to a degree, but what is maybe more important is having a “deeper” experience. Earlier, when we first started talking about the museum lens, there was a conversation about how it deepens the experience. It makes you understand and feel that there is more depth to things than you’d imagined. So maybe just being introduced to that depth, the idea that things can be deeper is an important value and why you bring students to museums at all.

AJ: Yes and sometimes that can happen without any design whatsoever. Sometimes on the farm I almost feel that, yes, we try to put forth these dynamic, high quality programs but sometimes the best thing is just being out there, away from the city in this environment that’s so different and sometimes scary, there’s bugs and snakes and frogs.

MB: Real stuff! Museums say, “what is important about coming here is we have real stuff”. [laughs] Guess what!

TE: Well all objects are real, it’s just a matter of whether they are in the collection or not.

NP: I was just wondering if you teach any colonial history still?

AJ: We do. We kind of serve a different visitor now, especially in terms of school groups. The history teachers, we found, were not as thrilled about the marriage of the two disciplines as the science teachers. And since environmental literacy is a lot more prevalent and prioritized… The history is still in there, but its like you are using history as a tool to get you somewhere else. Its not just history for history sake.

TE: Which is actually what most history museums have to do because history is not tested and many schools don’t even teach history any more. History is used as a lens more for looking at science… So while [the National Museum of American History] get 5 million people to come each year our impact on the education system, which used to be one of the big goals, is not possible because its not aught in the same way it used to be.

AJ: Well, I’m a history person and I’m bored by a lot of what history museums are doing. Especially here in this area, as compared to Atlanta. Here, you can throw a ball and hit a colonial site. You know, spinning wheels, butter churns, I’m just done with it.

NP: Was that part of your decision, that you felt like other institutions did a better job of teaching colonial history? 

AJ: Because we had to justify it to the board, the first thing I did was make a map of all the colonial institutions and all the environmental based institutions all in Montgomery County…where white people live, basically. And all the colonial stuff, there’s Mt. Vernon, the Surratt House, there’s Sotterley Plantation… there’s a lot of that going on already. So how do we differentiate ourselves. And like I said earlier, we’re not tied to a specific person who lived there, so we were free to do what we wanted to do with it. So its definitely an experiment. There’s a branding process that hasn’t quite caught up with [what we’re doing].

NP: We just went through a brand purpose exercise at the [Baltimore Museum of Art] which was fascinating, and we were working with someone who comes at it from a known traditional way. Anyway, I’m sorry. I think Im taking us off topic. 

AJ: Well it does have to do with all of this decategorization because, even though I wasn’t a proponent of being an expert, I found myself completely out of my wheelhouse. It’s environmental science. I just spent all day yesterday trying to figure out how electricity works…


AJ: …so we can compare energy conservation methods and values across time. But it’s all so interdisciplinary. Its already [there]. It’s just that we’re arbitrarily taking it out. So it’s been a learning experience for me as much as any of the visitors.

MB: Yes. All that has to change is where we perceive it being appropriate for that [learning] to happen. Everything is already there. You said before, you don’t really need the museum. But there are reasons why we do need museums. We will always have them. But I think what you were getting at was, you can do some of the things you want to do even outside of it. It’s just a matter of where that focus, or framing takes place.

NP: So, to answer this question: “ What do museums do better…” why will we always have museums.

MB: Well, first I think there will always be reasons to have collections that need to be protected, that can’t be just sitting out. If I want to go see a real dinosaur skeleton or an Egyptian mummy I need to go to a place like a museum. If I want to see the Hope Diamond, the real Hope Diamond I’ve got to go to a museum. That’s not something [you] find outside. But in terms of relevance, and what most museums say they’re about, you can value some things more than others, but everything matters. Anything can be a starting point or foundation to learn something. Most things can be a foundation for [learning] many things. But, the museums that wont go away, first of all, those that have things that have to be protected and cared for. The other thing museums do is they create a kind of center, for people to come to if you have access to them. It’s a great place to go. Cool stuff goes on that is incredibly valuable. And you can be with real people in real spaces and do real things together. But again, there is a huge part of most museum missions … that are about something existing outside the [museum] itself. Zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, science museums are talking about things going on in the world that you’re supposed to become sensitized to when you’re in the museum and then, when you leave the museum, you’re supposed to maintain that [sensitivity]. You’re supposed to keep it and apply it. That’s the idea, but I don’t know that it’s as affective as we’d like it to be. The feeling of reverence you get from being in a museum goes away, and you start to look at [the world] as everyday stuff. So its not about saying that museums are obsolete. Its that [brick and mortar] museums can only go so far, and it seems crazy for museums and other educational institutions to not put their heads together and think about more use of what is around us all the time.

For this last question, “What does seeing through the museum lens bring to schools, workplace, community, society…” I do think what we’re talking about is beyond the responsibility of just museums, although I see museums positioned well to help instigate this the kind of thing we’re talking about, to “set it off”, plant it and see what happens.

NP: That makes me think about museums that don’t have collections.

MB: Sure, like some science museums.

 NP: Or, I haven’t been there yet, but the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It’s really more a concept than a collection.

MB: Hmmm. [pause] I question the addition to the American Museum of Natural History expanding into Central Park. It’s kind of ironic to spend 300 million dollars on a building expansion into a natural environment to learn about nature. What would you do with that same amount of money if you didn’t have to build the building?

NP: Well it’s a good question because so many museums get on the financial rocks because of their buildings and they will often try to dig themselves out by building another extension because it’s the only way to raise money and then they’ve got even more overhead. And that’s where disruptive businesses like Museum Hack are very interesting, because if you think about them, they have no overhead. They don’t have to maintain the building, a collection, nothing. And they’re selling tours from $60 - $120 a person when you can get a free tour in a museum any day. That is a disruptive business model.

AJ: Have you been on one?

NP: I have. It was a while ago and I hear they might have increased the art history content. I went on one at the met when they first started up.

MB: What did you think?

NP: I was bored, but I have a PHD in Art History so I’m probably not the target audience.

MB: What did they do?

NP: Well a lot of team building activities, we all posed like Egyptians, we counted naked bottoms. It was very sophomoric.


TE: Was there a trust fall exercise?


NP: I did learn one thing, but this is so specific to me. You know William the Hippo?

The guide said, “Im going to do one minute on William the Hippo”. Now, I come from the audio tour industry where the length of message is a constant [issue], so, I videoed him because I wanted to see what he could pack into a minute. And I did learn one thing that was very interesting to me about hippos which is that they tended to knock boats over in the Nile. That part of why Egyptians made statues to them, because they were a kind of threatening, almost spirit. Ok, so I learned something in one minute. So there was one minute of the whole tour [laughs] that I found interesting and educational, but I wouldn’t have paid attention had I not come from the audio tour industry.

AJ: I found the same thing. I was not impressed with [my tour] either. I did the one at the [American Museum of Natural History] in New York. But one thing I found really valuable was that our guide had an outsider’s voice and critiqued things like how to look at the different dioramas and the quality of this one vs this one, and was telling some of the backstory of the history of the time these dioramas were made. The museum itself would never point out its flaws. So I thought that part was interesting.

NP: And so since that time, they’ve made a real point of hiring trained art historians. Now I don’t know how much experience they have, whether they’re hiring the good one or not, but they might have more expertise in their content. 

MB: So, I like to hike. And sometimes I wish I was hiking with a botanist, and then I wish I could go hiking with a chef, and then I wish I was hiking with a meteorologist, or geologist and see if they would talk about things differently on those walks. How would the conversation be different? So just being with someone with knowledge in a certain area is going to change your perspective. I guess, if you weren’t looking for an art history experience in an art museum, but instead wanted to [visit] with someone with a different knowledge base, it would be interesting to see how it transformed the experience.

NP: So would Museum Hack be part of the ubiquitous museum?

MB: Do you mean, does ubiquitous museology include museums?

NP: No, I mean an organization like Museum Hack that’s coming in and giving irreverent information, or coming from a different angle, would that kind of be, by definition, part of this? Would you want to have organizations creating tours of the ubiquitous museum.

MB: I think ubiquitous museology is about being able to take something like the stuff on this table and use it as a foundation for an [informal learning] experience. Its about cultivating from what’s there. How people do that, or what organizations are involved, that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that yet. But I would say, the walls of the museum, in terms of ubiquitous museology are permeable.  We could do a geology using this floor and carrying it right outside. One of the thoughts I’d had for the Ubiquitous Museology Charrette, which didn’t happen, was to circle an area [of land] and capture the corner of a museum, so that people would have to deal with the fact that there was an actual museum involved in their material to play with, and what would they do with that. Would it just be used as it was [by the museum] or would it suddenly become “material’.

AJ: Does anyone remember a show on MTV called “Room Raiders”? Basically, a girl or a guy gets to go to the bedrooms of three potential dates. And they decide who they want to go out with based on their room. Its an interesting example because you’re not changing about the room, your not interpreting it, but you’re putting it in a frame. Interesting right? All the clues their bedroom will give about their lives. But that’s a designed experience. And I love that it’s a designed experience because you have a goal. You’re going in to find out a certain thing that actually applies to you.

MB: Was there anything learned in finding out who the mystery person was, beyond the room?

AJ: That’s interesting. I’m sure there could be some myths in terms of how a person represents themselves but... you could open the drawers, you could rummage through…

NP: Ok, so there is something called immersive theater. “Then She Fell” or “Sleep No More” are two that are in New York. And that’s part of it, you can wander the set and open drawers and look for things, and I’ve thought for some years, since those two became very popular, that there are some interesting paradigms there for museums.

JL: In London there’s a place called the Dennis Severs’ House that’s a little more like a museum along that continuum. You get in and you’re chaperoned. The floors are different areas of London, so the ground floor is Restoration-ish, so the 1660’s, and you get up to, say the 1870’s as you get to the top. They have open flame candles in the space, its all carefully put together. And its very smell based, very cobwebby…

LY: The conceit is that the family lives there and they just stepped out for a little bit, so the candles are still burning.

NP: They call it a “still life drama”. I love that.

LY: And you can’t speak. And the really disturbing thing is, you have the beautiful immersive environment and every now and then you have computer printouts from Dennis Severs [saying] “look carefully”, “did you see this…” that are really off-putting, at least to me and it sound like what you’re trying to get rid of, the intrusion, the mechanical interpretation or direction. 

MB: So, I had to leave the room in the middle of the conversation that questioned the value of [a non-expert] creating content about something, but at the same time understanding that there was value in an open, uninterpreted experience. And Trish, you were talking about that too, opening up the experience for people to step in to. Where did that [conversation] go? Or maybe I shouldn’t ask that. I keep forgetting I’m recording this.


TE: We started talking about how maybe there are these transition points of how we go from where we are now with [museum based] interpretation, and then how do we go to what would be my goal, where there’s nothing anywhere and people just know to look for things. And Carol was saying, maybe there are these transition points [to what we can’t really get to right now. So, maybe there is some intervention in the parking lot the museum puts out there to start getting people to look at things this way. So at some point they don’t need that scaffolding. And I think Nancy was saying, “Well a natural history museum cares if you think that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time”. So if there is intervention by the museum, of course they’re going to put that overlay on it, but my point was, “But if you ever get to the point when there’s no overlay, for me, it has to be ok for people to think what they want. You’re just asking them to look, you’re not asking them…

MB: To know?

AJ: We were talking about the possible bad effects

TE: That’s the thing. If you want people to just think this way you cant control what they think, so to me there is very much a tension. But I think if you really do cultivate people looking at the world through the museum lens, they might think something that’s not right, but then it might spur them on to do more research or to go to the museum, where there’s the potential to flip the understanding.

AJ: There’s a lot of scary things about relinquishing that much control.

TE: To me, when I think about the museum lens I think about it as a capital M and I don’t think about an institution associated with it. I think about it as a way of looking.

MB: A perspective, in a way?

TE: Right, that museums are good at fostering. Its not that scary because you’re not attaching it to an institution, its just a way of looking at the world. It doesn’t mean the institutions inside the walls are doing that. We shouldn’t. So, I don’t see it as that scary. I think you have more hope of getting people to look for more answers if you cultivate this way of thinking than if you don’t.

AJ: So, Trisha, are you talking about building skills through an educational format. Building a way of seeing that would not be sponsored by museums, not be a program of a museum, but would it be a whole structural rearrangement of our education system?

TE: I don’t know how you do it. That’s the tough thing. Ultimately the goal is for people to be empowered and have the skills and the lens to look at the world in a way that they are probably not looking at it now. How you get there, I’m not really sure. Is there a step where, say, the entire Smithsonian decides this is important to us so a bunch of museums start doing these little interventions in a different place. But at some point in the future, can you take the interventions away and have people still look.

MB: Where the perspective is the intervention?

TE: Right.

NP: Did you leave the room before we started banging on about museum mission.

MB: Yes I think I stepped out before that.

NP: I keep thinking we’re asking the question, “Does the museum lens need a mission?”

I don’t know of a museum that doesn’t have a mission. It might be poorly articulated but I think it’s an essential part of being a museum. I think there are a lot of invisible effects of having a mission. You know, Trisha, as you were talking about empowering people think whatever they’re going to think, I kept thinking about the Taliban and white supremacists and a lot of very dangerous ideologies that museums seem to keep at some arms length... The Taliban don’t hang out here.  You probably do have some white supremacists coming here but it’s not a very vocal and visible discourse entering the [National] Museum of American History. And that’s not because any of the staff sat here and said “We’re not going to let extremists in the door. There’s some effect of setting yourselves up as an institution and a museum with some kind of mission that means they don’t want to come. So, I’m kind of thinking about that, cause there is, arguably, a positive effect. It’s what makes museums a safe space.

TE: I guess when I think of the museum lens I really think about a methodology devoid of any specific content. I almost feel like I want to take the museum away. I think we’re attaching it too much to an institution when I think its really a set of behaviors. Honestly, there have been all kinds of studies that people come in here with preconceived ideas, and no matter what we put on the wall, it will not change them, so they come in as a white supremacists or the Taliban and it doesn’t matter what we say they still leave thinking [that way]. So, if someone believes dinosaurs and people lived at the same time, they’re going to think that whether they go [to museums] or not.

NP: So have they wasted their time and yours by even coming to the museum?

TE: Possibly, but I think that, if its outside the museum and you’re getting people to think, “I wonder what’s buried [here]”. Maybe they’ve never thought that before and I think there’s value in that, that they don’t have to come inside a building to think about those things.

MB: If they walked into an art museum and said, “Oh “Starry Starry Night”, I love Picasso”, its not everything you want, but there’s something there I guess [laughs]. Museum’s want to be experts in what they do. We carry a computer in our pocket so an answer is never too far away. But creating a deeper sense that there is more to what you’re looking at, that there is something really interesting in the stuff that most of us would consider mundane, is really [the point]. That idea that there is so much more there. How do we get people to go in that direction, or get that deep without an impetus? Part of what I heard in this conversation was, and maybe this isn’t right but, there are steps in all of this. The first step is to value the situation you’re in as more than just the everyday thing.  The next step is to somehow look more deeply at those things, and if you can have something or someone that helps guide you in looking [more deeply] at those things, that’s ok. That’s when you start to get into engagement on a deeper level, but that initial way of looking at something as somehow elevated is “the museum lens”.

AJ: It can actually be a detriment. If any of our loved ones have ever visited a museum with us. The way that we, with out museum brains, look at another museum, its almost unbearable to other people.

MB: Or, they think its really interesting and weird.

AJ: [Laughs] Or that, but, its almost ruins the magic. It’s like looking behind the curtain. We could put that in the mix too, the bad side of being too aware of your environment. There’s something about wonder.

NP: What I’m wondering about, and this is what I’m going to leave with today… I want to go look at some really bad museums, Nazi museums, museums of totalitarian regimes, and see if you can figure out what experience or product emerges from a broken system that might inform what we’re doing right [laughs], where we’re not living under those circumstances. This idea that meaning is produced when language breaks down, when the museological process has been distorted in service to some ideology, what does it look like? And then just do the opposite.

JL: I saw a picture of a display at the creationist museum and the thing that was most disturbing to me was that the text panel was an almost perfect mimicry of the kind of language and design of the ye old science museum text panel. It was something about the flood. It was a sort of “Did you know” in san serif font and a light gloss that implies a deeper scientific thing.

LY: Two [museums] came to mind when you said that. I’ve been obsessed with the [National Museum of the] American Indian, watching it go through how it constructs itself…I’ve been there many times just to [see] how it figures itself out. I don’t think it’s a bad museum, but I think it’s a museum that has had growing pains in a way that you don’t usually get to watch and I find that fascinating for the very reasons you were talking about. And then the other [museum] is one I haven’t been to. I heard about it at a conference I was at last weekend. It’s [called Wewelsburg and it’s] a 17th century German castle Himmler took and decided to turn it into a Medieval castle in order to prop up the Saxon heritage of the Nazi’s, creating a whole mythology around it and its now a museum. And the museum now has a very difficult mission because, on the one hand it’s a history museum about the castle and its place in German history, but its also a pilgrimage site where Neo Nazi’s and White Supremacists like to go because of the mythology that Himmler created. So it’s this “black site” and it’s really strange. And the gift shop…

AJ: Oh my god, the gift shop!

LY: Yeah it was fascinating, but again, its not necessarily a bad museum… it’s a museum that has huge conflicts built into [it] just by existing. So the way the staff can, and cannot control [how visitors see it], going back to this idea of controlling people, came instantly to mind, not in terms of museums that are failing but ones that… You get to watch them not be perfect and the things you can learn from that. In a way it’s almost the opposite of the ubiquitous museology. It’s so specific.

AJ: You can step aside and look at it and appreciate it, but then working there must be challenging.

MB: So it’s just a little after 2:00 and we said we would wrap up at 2:00. Are there any last thoughts before we wrap up?

AJ: I’ve appreciated this conversation.

MB: Well I have too, and I want to thank everybody for coming out and spending time talking about this. Thank you all.


The Omnimuseum Project is a non-profit collaborative devoted to embracing the everyday world of things, places and phenomena as sites for informal learning.


Ubiquitous Museology Charrette Report


Locale: Richmond VA. - Jayna Champeau



- Chris Speed and Jane Macdonald


Mobile devices lurking - Martí Peran



Wearable Exhibitions

- M.W. Burns


Guerrilla AR - Roula Tsapalas



You Are On Exhibit
- M.W. Burns


Imagining the Omnimuseum - M.W.Burns


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