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Museums in an Age of Scale

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
On September 16-17, 2013, an eclectic crew descended on the National Building Museum here in D.C. for “Museums and the Learning Ecosystem: building the future of education”—a convening co-hosted by CFM and The Henry Ford, with the support of the Robert and Toni Bader Charitable Foundation. Attendees represented the whole educational landscape—teachers, researchers, policy makers, activists, students, entrepreneurs, museum educators—and all shared a passionate interest in exploring the future of education, and how museums can play a more vital role. We are working on a paper summarizing the presentations and discussions from that convening—due out 1st quarter next year—but I can’t resist giving you a sneak peek at some of the content as I edit the submissions. Today’s guest post is by Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. Michael tackles the question of how museums can scale up the good work they do, in order to make a significant difference in American education.

My message to the Future of Education Convening was simple, even stark: if we want to take on the challenge of improving education in America, we’ve got to get big or get out. Half-measures won’t cut it.

Every organization, every discipline, dreams. When we close our eyes we picture ourselves practicing our craft at the peak of excellence: teaching, provoking, spreading joy, having profound impact in our communities. But even dreams have limits, based on our experience of what is possible. Dreams come in different types and sizes. Different scales.

Our industry, museums, forged our dreams in the 20th century when being successful meant having impressive buildings full of experts, big collections, and visitors through the doors. That was our reality, there was no Internet yet, and we could imagine no other type of success. In that world, we dreamt about things like bigger, better buildings, rock-star curators, preeminent collections, and more visitors.

The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. opened in 1978 with 4.6 million annual visits. It has roughly the same level of visitation today. Is that the fulfillment of a big dream? How you answer that question depends on what you think the mission of that institution is and how you think about scale, but either way, 0% audience growth and incremental improvements in facilities, collections, and staffing over 35 years reveals a question about whether we using the best dreams to shape and prosecute our missions.

The TED conference has served over a billion videos since 2006, the year they started a small experiment to put videos online. They tried it, it seemed to work, so they tried some more, and now they have delivered a billion videos. The TED team didn’t do anything that a museum couldn’t have done—no aspect of TED’s strategy, tactics, or operations require huge teams or huge budgets, and even the TED motto, Ideas worth spreading, is hauntingly museumesque. But their vision, their sense of their role—their responsibility, their obligation—in the world of the 21st century is clear, as is their understanding of scale.

The National Gallery of Art would have to operate for 217 years to have a billion visitors, but is a TED talk as good as a museum visit? Is any online experience as good? There’s a lot of doubt among museum leaders that online experiences can be as authentic, as impactful, as a visit to a museum. But try Googling “TED talk made me cry” and then read “Art Museums and the Public”, a 2001 report by the Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis, which concludes,

One of the most striking results of this generation-worth of museum audience studies is that the explicit aims of exhibition planners are rarely achieved to any significant degree. In study after study … researchers found that the central goals of the exhibition team (which are usually learning goals) were rarely met for more than half of the visitors, except in those cases where most visitors entered the museum already possessing the knowledge that the museum wanted to communicate.

Art historian Beth Harris told me her own feelings about the reality of museum visits,

It isn’t this amazing, contemplative, aesthetic, transcendent experience. It’s jostling crowds, it’s feeling hungry, it’s being annoyed by the people you’re with sometimes, it’s feeling disappointed that you can’t have the reaction that the museum wants you to have—that you don’t have the knowledge and the background to get there. I mean, it’s a whole range of complicated things.

Beth Harris, and her collaborator, art historian Steven Zucker, attended the Future of Education Convening. Beth and Steven reach 200 students a semester through the traditional practice of teaching art history in their classrooms, but this semester they’ll reach 2 million learners from 200 countries through their open educational resource, Smarthistory. The Khan Academy, a free, online educational website of which Smarthistory is a part, reaches ten million learners a month. MIT’s Open Courseware project served 100 million people in its first decade and their goal is to reach 1 billion learners in the next ten years.

Our dreams drive us forward. Museums accomplish wonderful things in society, but a billion learners—that’s the kind of dream we need to have.

For a dramatic visual representation of the issues Michael raises in this post, check out the Slideshare presentation The Age of Scale–his keynote for Wikimedia UK GLAM-WIKI conference at the British Library, London, April 12, 2013.
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  1. Don't you need to add web visits to the National Gallery visitation numbers to make the comparison to the TED talks more apples to apples?

    Jeanie Stahl
    White Oak

  2. Hi Jeanie – – Thanks for that suggestion! I wrestled with this when I was writing, and I have a lot of thoughts about the ways in which web stats like visits and page views would, and wouldn't, be useful here. Perhaps a sentence or section starting with "Even taking into account the NGA's web traffic…" would be appropriate for a future draft.

    The NGA's 2012 annual report states that they had 17.5 million web visitors: TED doesn't release visit/visitor stats. currently shows the NGA as the 90,581 ranked website in the world, where "rank" is a measure of page views and visits blended together with a proprietary Alexa algorithm: TED's rank is 1,144. That means that NGA traffic and views would have to double about five times to attain the same Alexa rank as TED.

    But it's not a competition – – it's not about a competition between museums and TED, or MIT, or the Khan Academy or any other kind of website. It's about recalibrating how much we think we can accomplish in society with a given set of resources. What we're striving for. In the old days it was buildings, collections, experts, and traffic through the door. We can do something different now. If we take our missions seriously we must do something different now. I don't think we realize how big, how global, how meaningful – – how good even the smallest museum can be.

  3. Mike,
    Your article and slideshow is very impressive, but I'm not entirely convinced that everything should scale. We need to be careful how and what we're measuring, not just looking for the biggest number. Quantity isn't the game, quality is. If one person goes to an exhibit and is moved to join a group or take an action or maybe even change their field of study, isn't that worth more than if that person watched 50 videos and took no action?

    There is an overwhelming tendency to think if you've seen it in some form of media, you've seen the real thing–but you haven't. If the video is giving you access to something that is not in your village or your city, or you can't possibly afford the real deal (like a TED conference), great. But when you go look at it on line instead of making a trip to the National Gallery, not so great.

    Our world has become ever more complex and technology is one of the key things contributing to that. One of the ways museums and libraries can be a big asset is to help edit all the conversations and re-present them with a little less noise–using whatever medium is the best fit–so that we can consume them in smaller chunks and understand some of that complexity. It's less "this is how it happened" and more "have you ever thought about this connection"—a very different thing than the old didactic approach and one that could keep museums ever relevant.


  4. Hi Laura, and thank you for joining the conversation.

    Smaller, deeper impacts are a great goal. I encourage museums to think about two questions when they consider that route: a) will the pool of people you reach in this manner also be big enough to support you financially and b) what is our responsibility, as an organization or as a field, to society as a whole, and what role does this "small reach deep impact" strategy play in fulfilling this responsibility?

    The hard fact is, no one owes us (as individuals or organizations) a living: if we play a vital and necessary role filling the needs of enough people in society, we will continue to deserve government support (nonprofit status, for example). If a majority of museums are seen as boutique experiences for a small segment of society, I think, in the future, that segment of society may be expected to provide all their support.

    This segues to my second point: cumulative impact. If museums are, as we claim, vital educational resources, we need to serve the majority, or better yet, all, learners in the US in significant ways. A lot of medium sized impacts (in person or via the web) can add up to more cumulative impact than either the once-a-year field trip, or deep experiences for a few lucky students.

    The first question–economic sustainability–has to be answered by every organization for itself. The second–providing significant service to society as a whole–is a challenge for the field, whether we tackle it through scaling up the efforts of individual museums, or find the resources to support more. I agree with Michael that museums need to aspire to do "big good."

  5. Hi Laura – – thank you for these thoughts: I really appreciate them, and I appreciate where you're coming from!

    In reply,

    a) I'm not trying to convince anyone that everything should be scale, only that new magnitudes of scale are possible, and any organization that intends to have impact in society had better look hard and carefully at what they could be accomplishing now, using tools and techniques that were not available 20 years ago.

    b) Regarding your question/assertion about one person seeing one exhibit that changes their life, vs. that person seeing 50 videos that have no impact – – of course! If it's a choice between doing X with tons of impact, and doing Y with none, do X! But turn the statement around and run this thought experiment: if one person sees an online video and it changes their life, isn't that better than if they see 50 museum exhibits and take no action? I think the thing we're struggling with, as an industry, is the assumption that people can't have authentic, life changing experiences online…and that they can't have anything but authentic, life changing experiences in exhibits.

    Deep impact on individuals is important. In my slides and talks, I spend a fair amount of time talking about more personal, emotional aspects of scale that I call "the z axis" and "0 to 1." The z axis" is about increasing the depth of impact on each individual served, rather than just serving more individuals; 0 to 1 is about recognizing the profound difference providing basic access to a resource can make when there is a total absence of that resource to begin with. (It starts at slide 116, )

    c) Regarding mistaking online media for the real thing, I think consumers are more self-aware than you're giving them credit for. People know the difference between a digital facsimile and real objects, I don't know of any evidence to the contrary (but I'd love to know more about relevant research). There was a lot of fear when museums started putting images online that nobody would come to the buildings anymore: I think the opposite has happened – – more information online has helped drive interest in encounters with authentic objects.

    Finally, I like what you're saying about complexity and making connections. A curator/paleontologist at our Natural History Museum told me that visitors are showing up knowing many more facts about, say, dinosaurs, than they did a few years ago. Facts used to be scarce, and museums could provide them. But now facts are not so scarce – – visitors know every fact that the museum could tell them, before they arrive, but they are hungry for context and connections. Conversation.


  6. To Laura's point on "deep impact," I agree that it is and should be an objective of museum experiences. I think the question is how does a museum measure and demonstrate this impact? How can museums show this kind on impact to patrons, philanthropists and lawmakers in a way that goes beyond the anecdote?

  7. Scale is just an element, it could be a goal.

    Starting with your brand, you have to find the best strategy and concept for every relevant medium.
    Translate a concept to another medium is often not (easily) possible.
    (TED has a great concept that translates 1 to 1 to online video.)

  8. Hi Peter – – Happy new year to you and your lovely colleagues at the Rijksmuseum!

    I agree with you that an important step in implementing a strategy is to start with the brand and work outwards from there, choosing the right media and messages to suit the goals of the institution. But this article is about backing up a step and considering scale – – not as a tactical option, but as a driver of strategy and institutional identity in the first place.

    For over twenty years I've seen "technology" put at the end of the strategy creation process, the assumption being that technology is just another means of expressing the timeless, changeless missions of institutions. For a while, while the Internet was young, I think this was a supportable decision, but no more. Projects like TED, MIT Open Courseware, the Khan Academy, and others that I cite in my slides demonstrate that new kinds of scale represent a profound sea change in what organizations can do – – even in what organizations are. Therefore, it's important to put ideas about technology and scale at the beginning of the strategy creation process, rather than leaving them for the end.

    The point I'm making isn't that every museum should be TED, it's that every museum could be TED. Museums can, with small teams and not much money, now work at enormous scale – – interactively, compassionately, and with deep impact on individuals across the globe. That's never been true before. Ever. And it's only just getting started: 2.4 billion people are now online (the last time I checked) and the next 5 billion are not far behind.

    For institutions that aspire to have a big impact on the world, scale isn't just another goal or tactical option: it redefines what they can be, how big they can dream, and – – most importantly – – what we should expect them to accomplish for us, with us, in society.

  9. Hello Michael – also all the best for you ; ) I agree with you that there are great possibilities in this digital age. But i think scale is as such not enough, there are for example large collection sites that have not much visitors, because the lack a great concept… Youtube for example has an enormous scale, but a lot of youtube channels by museums have hardly visitors, I think that everybody agrees that the possibility of scale is there, but to really make 'impact' is the challenge we al have since the beginning of the Internet. Digital learning platforms gives some new exciting possibilities, but also to succeed there is not a no-brainer : ) And the big museum brands have still better chances to succeed on this platforms, for all kind of reasons.

  10. Hi Mike,
    To clarify your point c: I'm not saying that people mistake digital for real, only that if you've seen a photo of the Grand Canyon, for instance, it doesn't stand in for the real thing. if that photo or video encourages you to make the trip to see the real one, however, then it's enriched your life. I agree that this is an important effect that digital outreach can have–to bring people in to see the real items–which I think museums would be wise to consider. There are all kinds of scale, and for a smaller museum, scaling it up to reach more of the local regain rather than thinking worldwide is an appropriate scale to consider. For those who can affect lives half a world away–great. But most museums can't do that nor should they try.

  11. Hi Laura and Peter – – thanks for your comments!

    – – – I’ll take Laura’s first, then (in a separate comment) Peters.

    Laura – – thank you the clarification of your thoughts regarding the relationship between virtual and actual objects 😉

    Regarding your assertion that global scale – – “affecting lives half a world away” is beyond the reach of most small organizations, think about these three examples,

    1) Rebecca Millar's local library/local history project about the Zuytdorp shipwreck in Kalbarri, Australia (1,300 residents! See it on Google Maps! ) united people on three continents. This Week In Libraries, episode 82:

    2) An example I use in my talk “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts” is a Pinterest board of museum and archaeological artifacts “curated” by a woman named Sunnifa Heinreksdottir. In June of 2013 her immediate social network included 28,000 people from all over the world. (She has a lot more followers now…)

    See the slides, starting with #86: (A written-out version of this talk is also on slideshare. Page 16:

    3) The example of Smarthistory. They’re part of the Khan Academy now, which gives them some big advantages, but even before that, I think these two art historians were reaching people in over 100 countries (my notes are a little unclear about when they broke the 200 country mark).

    None of this is beyond the mission – – or imagination or resources – – of small museums.

    [Note: This comment was originally posted on January 23, but I deleted it and re-posted it to correct an error. – – Mike]

  12. Hi Peter! – – thank you for your thoughts, it is always a pleasure to be in discussion with you!

    But I'm confused: Are you arguing that success, at scale – – at anything – – is hard, and takes work, practice, and effort?

    …Then I agree with you.

    And I’ll add a corollary: Goals that are not imagined, focused on, and worked towards, are almost impossible to achieve.

    Success is usually hard. Running a bricks-and-mortar museum is no exception, but we've spent a hundred-plus years and invested literally hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars working on them – – patching roofs, doing exhibitions, and striving for success. Sometimes we did succeed, but often we failed: Roofs leaked, exhibits flopped, scholars produced mediocre work, artifacts were damaged or lost, the public was ambivalent and stayed home, voting to spend their leisure time and tax dollars elsewhere. Over the years, though, we managed to teach ourselves a system of skills, responsibilities, and habits for running museums which, even if they weren't perfect, were good enough to satisfy the expectations of many who fund us, and many who we serve – – most of the time.

    But that was then. I'm arguing that now, in a world with 2.4 billion people online and another 5 billion soon to follow them, we need to add a new set of skills to our traditional repertoire: scale. And I have no doubt that we will succeed at it because I see that success all around me, being achieved by people no smarter or more resourceful than you and me and our colleagues, and who have no better missions or roles in society. Hopefully it will take less than a hundred years and cost less than a trillion dollars for us to find out.

    Finally, regarding your assertion that: "everybody agrees that the possibility of scale is there" – – I disagree with you on this point, profoundly.

    I was working with a well known museum/library institution last year. They claimed to be the world's authority in their subject matter, which is taught to probably half of the literate people on earth. This organization took particular pride in their accomplishments regarding helping teachers to use their materials in classrooms – – claiming to be the world leaders in this as well. I asked them how many teachers they trained every year, and they answered me: "24."

    As I continued to ask them questions about the scope and scale of their teacher training programs, it became apparent to me that this revered institution had absolutely no idea how big they could work – – how much impact they could have, and how many people around the world could benefit from their efforts and leadership. It wasn't because they thought their way of training 24 teachers a year was the best way; it wasn't because their brand concept was weak or their design and execution was poor – – it was because it never occurred to them to work any other way.

    And I see this almost everywhere I go: most organizations don't act as if working at a global scale is possible. I don't see it in their strategies. I don't see it in their spending patterns. I don't see it in their project management, the departments they build, who they hire, or what they talk about when they go on strategy retreats or talk to their boards of directors. It's just not there. So there's nothing to build on when they go into concept development, branding, execution, testing, refinement, engagement… In this environment, it’s not surprising that success is elusive.

    Finally, regarding your assertion that it is easier for big brands to succeed than small ones. That was almost entirely true before the Internet, but there are so many counter-examples now, in which extremely small, mission-driven organizations succeed at jaw-dropping scale, that I am concluding the opposite…And I will leave that topic for another blog post.


    [Note: This comment was originally posted on January 23, but I deleted it and re-posted it to correct an error. – – Mike]

  13. (Peter and Laura – – I forgot to say "You're awesome," and thank you for caring enough about these ideas, and our profession, to make comments.


    – – Mike)

    [Note: This comment was originally posted on January 23, but I deleted it and re-posted it to correct an error. – – Mike]

  14. Hi Michael,
    Sorry for the late reaction. I think you are right that there are still institutes, small and big, that do not see or want to see the possibilities of the digital age, like scale. I also think that you are right that it is better to do one thing very good and reach a large audience. When we developed our website we used the ‘80/20’ rule, we prefer to reach an audience of (for example) 1000 people with 1 ‘great’ concept above reaching 70 people with 10 ‘little’ concepts (and that is indeed what often happens).

    But nevertheless I think that awareness of something like ‘scale’ is not the biggest challenge, at the contrary, the GLAM-world is obsessed by scale… I see a lot of institutes that want to use the new possibilities, but I think that often the approach is wrong. It is still often collection/content driven: they think, we have a lot of great content, let’s publish it online, and there will be millions of visitors (scale!). Or it is technology driven: some say we have al those great collections in different institutes, let’s publish it together with some innovative semantic web technology, then we have millions of artworks, documents etc. together, with millions of cross relations, and we can reach millions of visitors worldwide, but is there really an audience interested in these services? That question is not asked… I think the GLAM-world is very good in scale, but not with the right focus.

    My point is that I think is mist the most is not knowledge about new digital possibilities or the will to use them, but the ability to translate these in services and concepts with real added value and that people actually use.

    I’am a fan of a (less is more) design driven approach (like this , but there are many more examples) which focus on usertrends. Collection/content and digital tools/possibilities are only possible elements in great concepts that accomplish your brand mission by really reaching your possible audience (local and global).

    For now, I give you the last word and hope to have the possibility to discuss this further at another place with you (and everybody who is interested) ☺

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