Selling heritage and ideas

The theme for the opening night event of the MuseumNext conference in Amsterdam was “Heritage Sells.” In America, this means it’s a great time to be working at a museum.

The presenter, who looked to be about 22, designed a chain of retail stores in Amsterdam that he decorated using his collection of artifacts such as antique blue jeans and bank moneybags. His primary point was that authenticity and real stories are highly desirable commodities in the for-profit world. He gets well paid for injecting this spirit of authenticity into retail environments. One of his stores is called “The History of Denim.” It’s basically a retail version of a “museum” that sells blue jeans.


An exhibition on the complete story of denim at the Centraal Museum Utrecht.

This got me thinking: Would buying a pair of blue jeans in a “museum” of blue jeans make me feel better about my pants? I would definitely enjoy the experience of buying the jeans more in a museum of blue jeans than at a Wal-mart. I would probably view the jeans as having more “value” having come from a “museum” collection. And I might even think about the history of jeans and how they have come to represent something very American to the world.

And this presentation made me think this: we can’t lose sight of what makes museums so special.

In an increasingly virtual and electronic world, museums have a special claim on authenticity. Within our walls, within our collections, are real objects, real stories, real history, the results of and, we hope, impetus for real transformative visitor experiences. This is what audiences hunger for and what writers, musicians, designers, architects, and filmmakers strive to tap into. We have the real stuff, and the ways we can connect people with one another and with ideas present many exciting opportunities.

At the conference, I gave a presentation on the potential that the museum of the future holds. I said that the principal challenges facing the museum of the future are not those of evolving technology but of culture and mindset—both inside the museum and outside.

At PEM, we are no different than anybody else when it comes to organizational change. It is unsettling and challenging and happens at different rates based on who you are and what you do. If you are heavily involved in the media side, you are thinking of ideas and applications that the rest of the museum staff will initially have trouble understanding, let alone valuing. By the time they grasp what you are saying, time has passed, technology has evolved and you have moved on to the next idea.

So how can we change the pace at which museums evolve? We need to build new paradigms for museum practice.

Museum staff must be comfortable collectively prototyping ideas and putting them out for consideration unresolved. This is potentially messy and scary, and it is very different from the more academic, monastic model of museum practice that has held sway for the last century. This is a process that artists, designers, and innovative organizations of all kinds are comfortable with: continuously iterating, testing, and evolving many new ideas quickly, learning what doesn’t work and valuing the learning from the mistakes, rather than refining one idea over time until it is ready to be unveiled.

Simply put, we need to find ways to transform the thinking of our colleagues before we can transform the lives of our visitors.


An extreme example of prototyping. Courtesy image

One of the most exciting things about working in museums now is the energy propelling the debate over the museum’s role in society. I believe that the need for museums within our culture may never have been greater than it is today. To quote Ed Rodley, PEM’s associate director of integrated media, we can find ways to be “authoritative without being authoritarian.” If we can make our expertise accessible, if we can fully engage our visitors in meaningful exchanges, then we have the potential to be true agents of change. Because “Heritage sells.”

One Comment

  1. bryanne says:

    that was interesting!

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