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Tomorrow’s News, Today: Museums without Walls

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

One of the assumptions that CFM questioned early on is that museums are necessarily tied to a particular place. I’ve speculated about whether and when a museum might want to migrate to a new city or community. On a more local scale, why assume that a museum is tied to or limited by a particular building?

The newly released 2009 Museum Financial Information reports that nearly 40 percent of museums answering the survey had begun a construction or renovation project in the last three years. In 2008, non-governmental museums spent $1.8 billion on construction, with a median cost of $1.5 million per project. These projects, especially those engaging name architects to create signature buildings, often lock the museum into inflexible space that may not meet its future (or current) needs, increase base operating costs (a fact often not taken into account in planning and financing the project) and may or may not yield long-term benefits in terms of visitation. See Ben Davis’s opinions on how expansionism has contributed to the current nonprofit financial meltdown.

I suspect that in the future museums on the whole will invest less heavily in bricks and mortar (especially fancy, expensive bricks and mortar) and put more into content delivery. Yes, I know—it’s harder to hang a donor plaque on a program or service than on a building. But I think we are moving, slowly and surely, in this direction. Listen to Phil Nowlen’s Voice of the Future video in which he contends that museums are becoming places “from which” services flow rather than places “to which” people go. Phil, who is director of the Getty Leadership Institute, challenges museums to “move beyond their comfortable street addresses the better to advance society’s … sense of community and strength of democracy.”

Others are recognizing the power of this trend as well: I am happy to spread the word that the Scotia-Glenville Children’s Traveling Museum is being recognized by the Drucker Institute, whose recent newsletter highlights the museum’s outstanding submission for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation. The Scotia-Glenville Children’s Museum is all-traveling museum that visits communities within a 50-mile radius of its headquarters in Scotia, N.Y. Certainly this mobile model is easier for a hands-on children’s museum, with collections already designated for consumptive use, but other kinds of museums have shed their skins as well. Most recently, the SF Mobile Museum, which launched this August to be a “movable feast of local culture” with exhibits that are often “by the people and, of course, for the people.” (And props to SFMM for their witty logo.)

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Museums can start as place-based institutions and then shed their skins. The McCormick Freedom Museum divorced itself from one physical location earlier this year. Now it accomplishes its mission to “inspire people to understand, value and protect freedom” via exhibits installed at other museums, in libraries and on the Web. (I also like the McCormick as an example of a museum that has very clear goals for influencing the real world behavior of its audience. Check out the Take Action section of its website.)

Traditional building-based museums are expanding past their physical boundaries as well. Such organizations as the Valentine Richmond History Center through its Historic Richmond Tours and the Montgomery Historical Society (through its Montgomery Connections, nicely described in this post on the Uncataloged Museum) are interpreting/curating entire neighborhoods in addition to their own collections.

I wryly note, however, that this news item can also be filed under the heading “the future has a long tail,” since the Scotia-Glenville CM is 31 years old. I guess sometimes it takes a few decades to recognize innovation…

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1 Comment

  1. Couldn't agree more. In our place-ambiguous world, the identity and quality of ideas begin to take on a greater significance. Not that they will supercede the need for architecture, but things are quickly stretching and moving to fit our ever-growing and ever-mingling populations.


    "…interpreting/curating entire neighborhoods in addition to their own collections."

    While giving credit where it's due, there's also SFMM's Looking for Loci collaborator Jaime Kopke's (now over) project, the Denver Community Museum. She took the assignments directly to the community:


    Maria Mortati
    Curator, San Francisco Mobile Museum

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