Rethinking the Museum Footprint
It is not difficult to see that the traditional definition of museums as foundations
of knowledge and repositories of valuable objects is blurred in an age where social media dissolves the exclusive role of
institutions as centralized sources of information, or where Antique Road Show and eBay shows us that we only need to look
as far as our own basements to discover precious treasures.
An exhibition is composed of systems and strategies
that operate between the visitor and a subject. It can function as a guide, facilitator, interpreter
or platform for engagement, and take on a great variety of forms. With what seems to be an endless flow of new mobile technologies and applications the same functions are being offered between their users and
the world at large, effectively setting the stage for placing everything on exhibit.
A global effort is underway to tag
the physical world with content through a process called object hyperlinking. Object hyperlinking involves any kind
of digital tagging system (RFID, graphical tags such as QR codes, SMS tags, virtual tags based on geophysical coordinates,
etc.) where the real world can be associated with content and referenced wirelessly. Things can become the agents of their
own unique stories, either individually, or in combination with other things. Your smartphone may be packed with apps that
take advantage of early forms of object hyperlinking. As the elements of our environments become interconnected and aware
through ambient intelligence the facilitation of informal learning experiences will be instantaneous, personal and possible
All of this leads to the perspective that the museum’s presence is no longer tied
to its “bricks and mortar” site. Beyond public outreach programs that tend to occur as isolated “special
occasions” the museum will exist where we live, work, and play. We will no longer be its “visitors” but
rather its occupants. In years to come the measure of the museum’s presence will not be determined by its architectural
footprint alone, but by its involvement in our everyday lives. The museum will exist, not simply as a place to visit, but
as the places we inhabit.
|Image source: Google Earth
So how do exhibitions
integrated into the world around us significantly differ from those produced inside museums?
Location, Location, Location
The task of embedding enrichment experiences
into everyday places is fundamentally tied to existing conditions and features. The scientific, historic and cultural topics
that already exist in a given location are its natural focal points. Unlike creating experiences to install in an empty exhibition
hall, there are far more components that will influence both design parameters and engagement opportunities when considering
say, a suburban neighborhood, a city block, a park, or a retail environment. Therefore experience designers and developers
will need to consider a different set of criteria than is typically used when creating exhibits and activities inside museums.
Surveys and assessments of a particular
location including its setting (urban, suburban, rural, or other), environmental features like its flora, fauna, geological
composition and climate, as well as its historic and cultural identities will help establish the themes and subjects addressed
in that location. Other factors such as demographics, municipal infrastructures and even the modes and speeds of traffic (both
foot and vehicle) will have a tremendous influence over design and development decisions.
What is also different about incorporating
institution-sponsored experiences into preexisting, multi-purpose environments is that there can be numerous institutions
present in any given location. Almost any site, regardless of size, can support a multitude of disciplines. A garden, for
example can support everything from teaching math to botany, zoology to community planning, hydrology to agriculture. And
here again, it is important to remind ourselves that our means of exposing the wonders of things around us should never hinder
actually experiencing those things free of interpretation. One of the values of focusing on
“the everyday” is to liberate it from what is too often seen as the mundane. But it is also important that our
systems and strategies for doing so don’t undermine our direct experience of things. The balance between preserving
direct experience of a subject and exposing the wonders it holds poses one of the biggest challenges to developers and designers.
Think Globally, Learn Locally
Museums can be universal in the subject matter they offer, bringing into one place
a wide range of objects, topics, phenomena and ideas. How else might we find precious objects from Egypt, learn about volcanoes,
and experience bioluminescent sea creatures under one roof? While most museums are bound to a single location their exhibitions
are not. Museums will never vanish. They will continue to serve as places for encountering things and ideas from around the
globe and across time, but we also recognize the limits of this paradigm. Aside from the occasional visit, the museum’s
invaluable services are essentially missing from our lives. This is not because museums have no interest in what happens here.
It is the result of strategies developed around the tools that were available as museums evolved. Like the land-line telephone, the services
of the traditional museum have been constructed around a fixed location. It is possible for museums to be free of this umbilical
relationship and work more directly with audiences in the world they touch every day.