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Pleasure to be here Thanks to the team at the Mather Museum for the
invitation. Thanks for the introduction.

About the title: its scary. Im not sure who came up with it but its a

Todays Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge

Steven Lubar
Museums at the Crossroads
Mathers Museum, Indiana University
May 2015

Lets take a look at it. For one thing, why is challenge at the end? Shouldnt
the challenge come first? Is innovation the challenge? Or change? And is the
change from yesterday to today, or today to tomorrow? I started to play with

What if challenge came first? That way, we could see what museums have a
hard time with - what challenges them - and think about the innovations
necessary, and what change that might lead to.

And then theres the question of todays museum - I believe that todays
museums need to innovate and change because of where theyve come
from. And we can only understand that, I think, with a longer view. So we
could add a historical element

Todays Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge

Todays Museum: Challenge, Innovation, and Change

This provides us a nice historical perspective. I am increasing fascinated by

museum history, both for its own sake, and as a way of thinking through
future possibilities. Museum history is remarkably rich, almost to the point
where there seems very little that museums havent already tried. There are
new technologies, new possibilities, and new demands; but they build on
both a long culture of museum thinking, and also a culture of change.

I want to suggest, in this talk, that museums struggle with change in part
because they have adopted a set of rules, a set of ideas about how things
are supposed to be done. They have internalized these rules so that they
dont even think about them. In this talk, I want to ask: what are those rules?
Where do they come from? How do they keep us from doing what we ought
to be doing? How do they keep us from innovating and changing?

Museums Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow:

Challenge, Innovation, and Change

Challenge, Innovation, and Change

We need to know where weve come from to understand what keeps us from
changing to be what we want to be, to go where we want to go. SO the
first question is

What are the rules?

What are the rules? What are the unwritten rules of museums? What
rules have museum people internalized? Before you can break the rules,
or change the rules, you must know what they are
a quick set - not definitive, but to get you thinking

and mostly these are good! Need to know when to break them.

Ive exaggerated a bit here, for educational purposes!

First, though, some actual curator rules. This Directors Agreement with
Curators, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the earliest list of rules for
curators that I know of.

Curators have entire charge of their respective Departments and are

independent of each other. Thats still pretty much the case today at the

Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Directors Agreement with
Curators, June 10, 1886

Curators are responsible for the safekeeping and preservation of all art

Curators keep a property book. Theyre registrars, not just curators. And
again, by department, not across the museum.

Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Directors Agreement with
Curators, June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Directors Agreement with
Curators, June 10, 1886


They report once a month to the director about what theyve done. This is
when the director finds out whats been collected.


There are some practice things here, as well. No more than one curator at a
time shall be absent a whole day from the Museum. Worth noting that there
were only two curators at the time!


This, by the way, is one of the two men these rules applied to: William H.
Goodyear, first curator at the Met.

Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Directors Agreement with
Curators, June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Directors Agreement with
Curators, June 10, 1886

Professor William H. Goodyear,

first curator of The Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Portrait by Wilford S.
Conrow 1916. Brooklyn Museum.


A few years later, the Met published an entire book of rules.


In these new rules, the director has a bit more say. It seems the curators
decide what to put on display, the director arranges it, and the curators label
it. Must have made for interesting management problems!


Later rule books at the Met are mostly about keeping good records:
recording object moves, photography, conservation, using new forms.

Rules and Regulations of the

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1889

Rules and Regulations of the

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1889





Circular Letter to Curators

a copy of regulations to be followed in recording the
location and condition of objects of art in all departments except
the Library and the Department of Prints, which have their own
specialized forms of records. I wish you would, as promptly as possible,
take the steps necessary to put them into effect. The following notes
are for your guidance in so doing:



Cards for use under Rule B are to be obtained from the Storekeeper,
who will have a supply of special guide cards on which to enter case
numbers. Ordinary guide cards should be filled in with the number
of the gallery, number of storeroom, name of shop, etc., to cover the
objects grouped under these heads.

The special guide cards referred to above constitute forms on which
to enter the records of the opening of cases.The records of the annual
checking of each gallery and each storeroom should be entered on the
face of the guide cards for these rooms.
While most of the checking of the contents of rooms and cases
will probably have to be done by each department during the summer

season, the checking of some of the caseswill be spread over the year,
since a case checked in the course of rearrangement, or opening for
some other reason, during the calendar year need not be checked again
that year.



Particular attention is directed to these rules. Rules B and C under

this heading are in immediate effect. Therefore, no object of intrinsic
value can be moved out of a department until an extra set of photographs is available. Rule D is not only in effect immediately, but is
retroactive; as soon as possible full setsof photographs and descriptions
of objects of intrinsic value now in possessionof the Registrar are to
be made and turned over to him. The photographing necessary to
carry out Rule A is now under way. You will note that one com-

Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Circular Letter to Curators, 1935

My talk isnt really about this kind of rules, though. But it seemed right to
mention the set of rules that guides many curators in the US - the Oce of
Personnel Managements curator rules.


Only in Washington the Oce of Personnel Management position

description for curators. These are the 1962 rules, still in use. Museum
curators collect, design exhibits, undertake education programs, and do
research. and so on, for 16 pages. *

These are the ocial rules they give you an overview of curatorial work in
several categories - exhibitions, collecting, objects Big question, of
course: what are the real rules?


Start with exhibitions What are the assumptions that go into designing

* Another way to think about this: You know youre in a traditional exhibition


An exhibition is orderly It takes objects and puts them in an order, to tell a

story. Early cabinets of curiosity were not orderly - they were about
exceptions, the exotic, the odd, the wonderful. But museums take on their
modern form when they are orderly. So compare this.

Position Classification Standard for

Museum Curator Series, GS-1015,
Office of Personnel Management, 1962

Exhibition rules
You know youre in a traditional
exhibition when



Worms cabinet of curiosities - a premodern museum -Modern museums

display the typical, in an order that tries to make sense of the world;
wunderkammer display the strange and wonderful


A symmetrical vision of the world, at the East India Marine Society.


At the Smithsonian: a place for everything, and everything in its place. A tidy
vision of the world.

Musei Wormiani, 1655

East India Marine Hall between 1825

and 1867, by James H. Emmerton

United States National Museum,

Smithsonian Institution, 1880


The Wagner Free Institute of Science isnt tidy, but from a distance it
suggests an orderliness to the world that is quite endearing. Museums
present a view of the world that suggests that orderliness is possible, and


Even when displaying the most un-museum like artifacts possible orderliness suggest its a museum. Cigarettes, on exhibit at the Museum of
Innocence by Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul


Orderliness has another meaning - things are arranged in a particular order

arranged so that they tell a story. According to designer Richard Saul
Wurman, only 5 kinds of order.


Wagner Free Institute of Science,


Fusuns cigarettes, Museum of

Innocence, Istanbul



In order



By category


Chronology is the easiest kind of order for museums. Its also one that can
easily oversimplify, over-order. A history museum focused too narrowly on
timelines suggest that history had to happen the way it did, that it follows a
pre-ordained path.


Timelines can get complicated in interesting ways. At the turn of the 20th
century, the Smithsonians anthropology and technology curators loved to
organize things in synoptic series. This was a more complex chronology - not
about time, but about progress. Order carries with it ideologies, meanings.


A map filled the lobby of the Atwater Kent Museum, providing a geographic
order to Philadelphia history.


Synoptic Series of Invention: Knife, saw,

borer, scraper Smithsonian, about 1890

But theres more than just orderliness, or putting things in order. Museums
suggest, more profoundly that the world is ordered.

Atwater-Kent Museum,


By ordered, I mean, they instill a sense of order - * of discipline - that they

make an argument about how artifacts relate to each other, and how we
relate to artifacts - * how the world works. * Foucault argued that we should
understand the world by examining the structures of knowledge. Museums
are a good place to do that


This focus on order is clear in the first modern art museums. Lambert Krahe
introduced a completely new and modern system of organizing paintings at
the Dusseldorf palace in 1770s. His aim was to create a pedagogical display
that educated viewers in the art-historical principles of the dierent schools
of art. The art museum, from this point on, was not about individual works,
but about art history.


Not just art museums, of course - in fact, art museums were modeled on
natural history museums. A picture collection not arranged by school and
artist is as ridiculous as a natural history cabinet arranged without regard to
genus, class, or family.

like objects together
makes sense of the world

"Those beautiful structures that are so orderly,

intelligible and transparent to analysis."
Michel Foucault

Nicolas de Pigage and Christian von

Mechel, La galerie lectorale du
Dusseldorff; ou, Catalogue raisonn
et figur de ses tableaux (Basel,
1778), pl. 19-21

A picture collection not

arranged by school and
artist is as ridiculous as
a natural history cabinet
arranged without regard
to genus, class, or
Lebrun, art historian,


You can see this in history museums, too. As Gary Kulik has pointed out,
Peales pedagogy and taxonomy were better suited to birds and mastodons
than to history and human culture. His gallery of heroes made the
Revolution tamer, more respectable, and more orderly than it ever could have
been. Peales museum oers a combination of orderly display, an ordered
display, and a suggestion that the world is orderly.


Ever wonder what was behind the curtain? This picture gives a better sense
of the order of the Peale museum.


There was disagreement about how best to organize exhibits, but there was
complete agreement that there had it be organization. Goode, the museum
philosopher of the 19th-century Smithsonian, put it thus: museums should be
arranged with the strictest attention to system.

Charles Wilson Peale, Portrait

of the Artist in his Museum, 1822

Charles Wilson Peale and Titian Peale, The

Long Room, Interior of Front Room in Peale's
Museum, 1822. Detroit Institute of Art

The peoples museum should be much more than a house

full of specimens in glass cases. It should be a house full of
ideas, arranged with the strictest attention to system.
George Brown Goode, Museum-History
and Museums of History, 1888


Archaeology and anthropology exhibitions also found order in the world. At

the Smithsonian, George Brown Goode urged that anthropology exhibits be
classified in a double system: by race, and by the evolution of culture and
civilization, across race. (Museums of the Future, p. 259.) - he even
suggested putting cases on wheels so that they could be reorganized easily.


Orderliness didnt mean correct - Malvina Homans exhibition of the 120

races of the world shows the seductiveness of order -

a comic book version of race, perhaps. order makes things too easy.

Prehistoric Archaeology exhibit in

Upper Main Hall, Smithsonian
Institution, c. 1879-1903

So what happens when we undermine orderliness? When we subvert


Malvina Hoffman, Hall of Races,

Field Museum, 1929


Note start of red triangles exhibitions that break the rules! when you see
these - ask whats dierent about these

Dr. Albert Barnes upset the museum world by breaking the rules put
furniture and wrought iron on display with his Renoirs - he saw these as
aesthetic similarities, not as art-historical evidence.

Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. Renoir

and chest room 18, 1942. Library of Congress


Whistler Peacock Room was also about personal aesthetic categories

originally designed to display Leylands collection of Chinese blue and white
porcelain, then used by Freer to present ancient biblical manuscripts he had
acquired in Egypt and to organize and display more than 250 ceramics he
had collected from throughout Asia.


Chipstone installation at Milwaukee Art Museum fine American furniture

embedded back into nature harking back to a pre-museum world of
wonder cabinets - not about order, but about exception, oddities, even
dreams and nightmares.


Part of the power of Fred Wilsons work is the way he plays with categories.
The label says: metalwork, which is a category that seems appropriate for a
museum. But somehow fine silver and slave shackles dont seem to rest
easily in our categories.

James McNeil Whistler, Peacock Room,

1876-77, revised 1908, Freer Gallery of Art

Martha Glowacki, Rooms of Wonder,

Chipstone Foundation / Milwaukee Art
Museum, 2008

Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum,

Maryland Historical Society, 1991


This from a long case of artifacts that survive from the Jenks Museum of
Natural History - arranged, in a new installation by Mark Dion at Brown
University, by degree of decay not the usual way of thinking about museum
artifacts, but an appropriate for an exhibition on a museum thats
disappeared. Note the orderliness, even an exhibition about disorder.


Mambo Maude, a voudou priestess, mined the collections of the Haenreer

Museum for artifacts that spoke to her of the water goddess La Sirena many cultures pulled together because of what she saw as a spiritual

The Lost Museum,

Brown University, 2014

Some of the most interesting museum exhibitions of recent years are those
that break the rules, bend the categories, move beyond system. These are
exhibits that call attention to the orders and systems that we can too easily
take for granted.

Haitian vodou altar by Mambo Maude,

Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, 2012


Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

website, 2015

Digital allows many ways into the collection. Seb Chan at the Cooper Hewitt
argues that we need to consider the users wants and abilities in designing
interfaces to online collections. Tagging was fashionable a decade ago as a
way of allowing non-museum categories and terms. Chan suggests that
faceted searches across a wide range of categories - color, location, donor,
etc., serves users better - it lets users play with the categories. * heres what
you get Note - color turns out to be the most popular way of browsing


The next set of rules: exhibits are designed for looking. Ill come back to the
fellow peering at museum exhibits with a skiascope in a moment.


Exhibits are designed for looking. Artist Karin Jurick captures the essence of
museums in her series on Museum Patrons: people looking.


Theres a long history of paintings and photographs of people in museums,


Designed for looking

Karin Jurick, from the

Museum Patrons series, 2010s

Frank Waller, Interior View of the Metropolitan

Museum of Art on Fourteenth Street, 1881


Looking closely.


Looking very closely.

Adolphe Vasseur, Palace

of Fine Arts, Lille France. 1883

This fascination with close looking reaches its ultimate state in Google
Cultural Project: a system designed to turn art into brushstrokes

Alcio de Andrade,
Louvre Museum, 1993


Visitors viewing Brontosaurus skeleton,

American Museum of Natural History, 1937

Looking and pointing.


Looking and pointing, virtually




Theres a good literature on the particular kind of looking that museums

encourage. Here, a fine illustration of the male gaze.

Epcot, Disney World, 2003

Henri Cartier-Bresson,
Leningrad, 1973

Thomas Hoepker, Picasso's Les

Demoiselles dAvignon, The
Museum of Modern Art, 2005.


Even when art and artifacts are replaced by screens, its about looking.
Maybe even more so. We know so well how to look at screens.


How might we encourage visitors to move beyond just looking. Here, first
close looking, and then drawing. Museum educators are doing wonderful
work in this area.


Occasionally, museums are designed for other senses, but not very often. or
very well. Hearing - but only as an adjunct to looking. Almost never touching.

Sherlock Holmes, Museum

of the City of London, 2014

Saturday Morning Class in the Print

Room, Art Gallery of Toronto, circa 1931

Return to the Sea, National

Museum of Natural History, 1964


There are new possibilities for moving beyond looking with new kinds of
screen. A new kind of attentiveness, of interaction, is possible.


There are new possibilities for moving beyond looking with new kinds of
screen. A new kind of attentiveness, of interaction, is possible.

American Enterprise, National Museum

of American History, opening soon!

Next: another category of rules how museums put objects in context.

Strike a Pose, Gallery One, Cleveland

Museum of Art, 2014



The past century has seen a tug of war over what kind of context to provide
objects. Just a few examples.


Many art museums have gone almost entirely to art without context. Brian
ODoherty explains this in his famous Inside the White Cube. How we look
at art how we look in museums changes over time, from many things to
look at, to intensive looking at one thing.


The best expression of this framing is Benjamin Ives Gilmans skiascope outlined in his Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method (1918). He presents
the skiascope as a device to limit glare, but metaphorically, it does much
more than that: it isolates each piece of art.


And so we have the white walls of the gallery, each painting given its space,
framed in many ways: its literal frame, but also by the edges of the wall, the
rope in front, the lighting, the circulation of visitors.

The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that
interfere with the fact that it is art. The work is isolated
from everything that would detract from its own evaluation
of itself.
Brian ODoherty, Inside the White Cube, 1976

Benjamin Ives Gilmans skiascope, from

Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, 1918

Art Institute Of Chicago, 1990

Photographer: Thomas Struth.


Not everyone bought into this - Alexander Dorner at the RISD Museum tried
a range of techniques in his atmospheric rooms: colors, environmental
sounds, close listening - about creating an historically resonant emotional
context for the art. And theres been a revival, in big art museums, of
contextual shows that reconnect the art and decorative arts of a period.


A remarkable show that broke museum rules by hanging the quilts high in the
air - not to be looked at closely, but to be appreciated as a collection, as a
set of patterns and colors - as a quilt of quilts!


Anthropology have a dierent way of thinking about context. - here, all pots

Classical Room, Museum of the

Rhode Island Museum of Art, 1939

Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White

Quilts, presented by the American Folk Art Museum at
the Park Avenue Armory, 2011. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

National Museum, about 1890


Ethnographic artifacts as pure form.


Ethnography as diorama, an attempt at spatial context - Boass influence



Objects as devices for expert to explain with. Context here is


Installation of the Ward Collection in

Paris, about 1911

Zulu diorama,
Smithsonian, about 1915

Political Authority in Cultures of

Africa exhibition, NMNH, about 1969


Finally, opening up to many voices, many stories, personal contexts; not just
the expert providing the storyline, but letting the subject speak.


Technology museums have played with context in a similarly wide-ranging

way. From all tools for a similar purpose lined up


to period rooms: one place, one moment in time.

African Voices, NMNH, about 1999

Synoptic series of knives and saws,

National Museum, about 1890

Enough about exhibits lets move on to objects

Shoe shop, Henry Ford Museum,

about 1990


Ill talk about three kinds of object rules - collecting rules, rules about treating
objects, and the notion that museums keep objects forever

Object Rules


Collecting Rules


Clara Lieu, The Art Prof blog, 2013

First, what to collect: What is museum quality? Prof. Lieu, the Art Prof,
says: museum quality work is work that talks about contemporary issues,
yet is timeless.

While I dont like the notion of museum quality - museums collect should
collect work defined in many ways - this combination is not bad: meaningful
today, and meaningful in the future, maybe in dierent ways.


Theres a long history of rules about what to collect - and what not to collect.
This is Burcaws famous listing of what isnt museum quality - rules that were
designed to professional the museum world - and which are superseded now
that were interested in not just history but also the way the public
understands and uses history Still no two-headed calves, though.


Weve become much more interested in objects as relics, as sites of memory

- the invention of the memorial museum broke Burcaws rules.


Note Sir Flowers line about state of nature - he wants to collect the pure,
things as they were before commercial, global influences. Thats almost
impossible, of course, and now we are as interested in those influences as
the pure. Were interested in tourist art, in the impact of the global flow of
materials and ideas, global bricolage.

Relics, curiosities, personal memorabilia, glorification

of specific individuals or specific familiesdo not
belong in a public museum. No two-headed calves.
No bricks from the old school house or mementos of
prominent families.
G. Ellis Burcaw, Introduction
to Museum Work, 1975

9/11 Memorial Museum, 2014

The scope of the museum should be strictly defined

and limited I think we are all agreed as to the local
character predominating Everything not occurring in
a state of nature within that boundary should be
rigorously excluded.
Sir William Flower, Local Museums, 1891


Theres always been tourist art


TOurist art is interesting because it shows not purity but mixture, not single
traditions but cosmopolitanism

in the faculty essays - Heather Akou mentions that Somali costume has
always been about bricolage - couldnt find a picture, but bricolage doesnt
do well in museums weve liked purity.


Finally, theres a new interest in contemporary collecting - breaking old rules

about waiting to see what might be worth saving Some museums are
setting up new categories of collections - objects easier to deaccession if it
seems collecting them was a mistake.

Loango market stall selling art to

tourists, about 1910

Anthropology Museum, Northern

Illinois University,

Given the uniquely detailed

record of contemporary life
recorded by today's
ubiquitous media how
best are museums to
record and present
contemporary life in their
Owain Rhys

Once we have them how to deal with objects?


The word Id use to describe it: we must respect the object. This means each
thing seen separately, protected, held for ever.


All objects equally precious - the historic house museum world is talk about
the Rembrandt Rule - the idea that everything needs to be treated like its a
Rembrandt. click once for both images -

Respect the object

The Rembrandt Rule

They are starting to ask the question about whether this is true - whether it
would be better to tilt more toward education and less toward preservation a hot topic in the museum world.


Bryan Collection, New-York Historical

Society, before 1908

This was not always the case. Note the way these paintings are hung - floor
to ceiling, overlapping - not respectful in the current sense.


In the Brooklyn Museums 1923 Primitive Negro Art exhibition, blankets

were hung on the wall and draped over stools. Perhaps the Brooklyn
Museum thought it OK to break the rules because it was displaying
primitive art?


The ultimate taboo: Open the case and touch the flowers. Museums are
supposed to keep the cases closed!


Benjamin Filene, the curator of Open House, broke many rules: Not
authentic artifacts from the house; words and artifacts mixed
promiscuously; many of the artifacts not museum artifacts - bought for this
exhibit. Many dierent voices overlapping.

"Primitive Negro Art,

Brooklyn Museum, 1923

Forestry Hall, American

Museum of Natural History, 1911

Open House, Minnesota Historical Society, 2006


Artist Mark Dions imagined reconstruction of the oce of John Whipple

Potter Jenks. A biographical sketch in objects - even though none of these
artifacts have any actual connection with Mr. Jenks.


One of the most shocking exhibitions ever at the Met. Not shocking because
of the sex but costumes from the collection shown in a lively way and
placed into period rooms. And broken objects!


Yinka Shinobara re-imagines a period room as a dreamscape - breaking all of

the rules! A wild party in a Victorian dining room! Headless manikins with
their feet on the table!

The Lost Museum,

Brown University, 2014

Dangerous Liasons,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004

Party Time, by Yinka

Shinobara, OBE, Newark Museum, 2009


Maira Kalman not only cuts open the back of the chair to install a screen
she has handwritten labels!

Artists bring a refreshing willingness to break the museum rules.

Maira Kalman Selects,

Cooper Hewitt Museum, 2015


Conservation philosophies and guidelines change over time. Alexander

Dorner, director of the RISD Museum of Art in the 1940s, had strong feelings
about what it meant to do a truthful restoration - what we would call a


Or, as Walter Benjamin said, authentic objects have an aura. Reproductions

dont have an aura - they are not embedded in the fabric of tradition.
Museums have brought into this - not always but certainly over the past

The wistful, sentimental

appearance of this head
made it a favorite of
romantically inclined
visitors until Dorner
corrected the false
impression by as truthful
a restoration as possible.
Samuel Cauman,
The Living Museum, 1958

Objects are authentic,

unique and precious


Our model for art: a single precious original thing.


Early museums were much less concerned with authentic, and more with
teaching. And so cast museums were common.

Mona Lisa at the Louvre

This is Browns museum of casts - * and other casts, now in the basement of
the economics department, for some reason

Gallery of Classical Antiquity, Brown

University, 1893


Claude Monet Studio, Giverny

All of the paintings here are copies.


Some interesting new possibilities if we let go of the idea of the original being
the only thing the museum is about. This is not a visitor feeling an original At
the Van Gogh Museum, visually impaired visitors can feel a 3-D printed
version of Sunflowers, as well as explore a model of his The Bedroom and
smell lavender. s


3-D printed sword that looks and feels like original, so that visitor can touch
it. More or less authentic than the original in a case?


Museums like to think they keep objects for ever. I want to ask two
questions. Do they, and should they?

Feeling Van Gogh, Van Gogh

Museum, Amsterdam, 2015

3-D printed 6th century sword,

Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, Norway

Keep objects safe, forever


Answer to the first: they dont really. (Of the 174 paintings that were part of
the Metropolitan Museum's first purchase in 1871, only 60 are in the
collection now. Only 19 are on view today.)


Of the first collection at the Smithsonian the George Perkins Marsh

collection of 1335 European engravings and 300 art books, purchased 1849 perhaps 400 left at SI. Some sent to Corcoran, some to Library of Congress
some destroyed in 1865 fire


US Exploring Expedition - 1838 -1842 - collected some 40 tons of

specimens - 4000 ethnographic, 2000 birds, 50,000 plants Came to
Smithsonian in 1858 Jane Walsh, at NMNH, devoted years to tracking
down the ethnographic collections - about two-thirds still there - the rest
distributed 800 of 2400 artifacts were missing - distributed to individuals, but
mostly to museums as starter kits much lost to fire, etc., at these other
museums need to do more of this museum taphonomy

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in

New York, 1880

George Perkins Marsh collection,

Smithsonian Institution, 1849

United States Exploring Expedition,

Smithsonian Institution


And to the second question I asked before - should they?? : It seems to me

that theres an ethical issue here: museum objects arent useful if they are
never used. Behind the scenes of every museum are storage rooms - usually
with more than 90 percent of the museums collection hidden away, most of
it never to be displayed.

When Ive taken students to visit museums, this is always what they like best
- what they remember most. But theyre also horrified by the notion that no
one gets to see them

Storage, Old Sturbridge Village


Collections are essential for research, especially in natural history


And to a lesser extent, in anthropology

Bird Storage, National

Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution

Anthropology Storage, Museum

Support Center, Smithsonian Institution


But perhaps less so in history. In fact, the history of collections in history

museums is a discourse of constant worry about what to do with collections?
How do we use them? How do we prove that they are valuable, useful, worth
the high price it costs to store them?


Cary Carsons 1978 worry is still mostly true.


And our storage is in bad shape!

Firearms Storage, United States National

Museum, Smithsonian Institution, about 1920

No matter what standard measure objective scholars

use they can hardly avoid the conclusion that the study of
artifacts has contributed to developing the main themes
of American history almost not at all.
Cary Carson, Colonial Williamsburg, 1978

1 out of 3 museums: it seems unclear who is

responsible for storage
1 in 4 museums: storage areas so overcrowded that it
has become difficult to get from one end to the other.
1 out of 10 museums: the theft of objects from the
collection is considered to be a major problem.
2 in 5 museums: an important lack of management
support for storage-related activities and a lack of
trained staff

International Centre for the Study of the Preservation

and Restoration of Cultural Property, 2011


It is the [museums] obligation to remove from the

collection material:
That does not relate to the museums mission
That the museum does not have the resources to

One answer, of course, is to take our deaccessioning responsibilities more

seriously - if not

we end up with objects that we never use

American Association of Museum, Ethics of

Deaccessioning, 2000


I couldnt resist

We need to think of storage as more than just - dead storage. And museums
have started to find ways to use their stored collections for their educational
goals, to bring them to life.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981


But more immediately - we need to put our museum storage to work

At Brown, we put our museum storage racks inside of glass exhibit cases.
We literally put storage on display!

CultureLab, Haffenreffer Museum of

Anthropology, 2012


The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre is open for occasional visits organized mostly for storage, but also for display.


Many museums have densely packed open storage rooms - in combination

with access to collections data on screens, a way of letting the public see
collections that would otherwise be hidden.


And, of course, visible storage and study rooms are becoming more
common. Here, the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Glasgow Museums Resource Centre

Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of

American Art, Metropolitan Museum

Visible storage in the porcelain

galleries, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Clothworkers Centre for Textile

and Fashion Study and Conservation,
Victoria and Albert Museum


The V&A is asking: How can we reinvent museums - how do we change the
rules - so that the public can make use of our objects?


Harvard Art Museums new Art Storage Center - anyone can ask to come and
see any work of art.


Some of the most fascinating exhibits mix the storage and the gallery - the
first one was Warhols Raid the Icebox

We aim to remove every barrier possible between the

public and the collectionsTheres a special intimacy
that comes from encountering an object first hand. I
personally believe we can trust the public more with
things, and perhaps it might even be worth changing our
policies on conservation to enable such access.
Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Contemporary
Architecture, Design and Digital, Victoria and
Albert Museum

The expansive Art Study

Center allows visitors to
request objects not
currently on display in the
galleries, facilitating selfdirected teaching and
learning from works in all
media, the Art Study
Center encourages
extended interactions with
original works of art.
Harvard Art Museums

Andy Warhol, Raid the Icebox,

RISD Museum, 1970


The collection of the Jenks Museum at Brown was lost, literally carted o to
the dump - here, its storage recreated as an art project. 80 student artistss
were given lists of collections that did not survive, and summoned forth their


Finally, some more general curator rules.* When I gave an earlier version of
this talk, the title was read as The curator rules!, with an exclamation mark.
Im more interested in that phrase, without an exclamation mark.


Curators make choices both because they are trained to - they were what
Sachs called the trained elite. Paul Sachs was head of the Harvard
Museum program in the 1920s and 30s - trained most of the museum
directors of his day - and this still stands as widely held belief - even if most
museum directors are less likely to be so blunt.

The Lost Museum, Brown

University, 2014

Curator Rules
Curators are experts, and
make the choices

The museum must remain

firmly in the control of a
trained elite [to] maintain
standards of quality
independent of the
contingent values of daily
life. Museums must
direct public tasteand
not be dictated [to] by it.
Paul J. Sachs, Harvard
Museum Program, 1920s


The strong sense of high
purpose and personal
responsibility and the
strict intellectual
integritymark the
museum curator. As a
professional he is a
stronghold of individual
initiative and
responsibility in a world
threatened by the ant
heap of collectivism.
Remington Kellogg,
Director, USNM, 1952

Remington Kellogg at the Smithsonian: the curator as a stronghold of

individual initiative and responsibility in a world threatened by the ant heap of

A fine example of Cold War rhetoric! Curator as John Galt!


Akeley was the mastermind of the natural history dioramas at the AMerican
Museum of Natural History.


Robert Multauf, explaining why the Museum of History and Technology todays National Museum of American History - was divided into exhibits
organized according to the specialized interests of the curators.

"If an exhibition hall is to

approach its ideal, its plan
must be that of a master
mind, while in actuality it is
the product of the
correlation of many minds
and hands.
Carl Akeley, In
Brightest Africa,

Our exhibitions represent

primarily the judgment of
the curator-in-charge as to
the best method of dealing
with his subject.
Robert Multauf, Museum
of History and Technology,


John Cotton Dana is represents another tradition - museums looking not to

their own interests or expertise but that of the community. This has become
increasingly common in recent years.


Mark Dions Sketches for Curator's Oce 2011 - an installation at the

Minneapolis Institute of Arts that oers the empty oce of the museums
mysteriously vanished first director of contemporary art.

The first task of every

museum is adding to the
happiness, wisdom, and
comfort of members of the
John Cotton Dana, 1917

He asks the question: what happens when the curator vanishes?

Mark Dion, sketch for The Curator Vanishes,

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011


Expression, Kelvingrove Art Gallery

and Museum, 2013

One answer: Ask non-curators what they think. Let them make choices about
art and artifact to display.


Write on the outside of cases and give people pens


Give artists uncharted spaces to work in, and to present their own work.

Exquisite Things, Haffenreffer

Museum of Anthropology, 2012

Photos courtesy S. Hollis Mickey, RISD Museum

One Room, RISD Museum, 2013


Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and

Laura Koloski Letting Go?: Sharing
Historical Authority in a UserGenerated World, 2011

Or, as an important recent book suggest let go. Letting go means working
with the community, working with your audiences in new ways.


It might mean reorganizing the museum so that curators are part of a team
responsible for visitor experience, not collections.


It might mean moving beyond thinking about museums be only about

education - and individual education - and think about what the museum
does for the community.

Alternative Museum
Organizational Chart

To sum up lets think about rethinking the rules.

Theory of Change, Santa

Cruz Museum of Art and
History, 2015


Rethinking the rules

First, the display rules:


Display rules

Designed around looking (not other senses)

Clear lines and divides between exhibit and visitors,

narrator, audience and subject

One story, beginning to end; neutral, unbiased, single

voice, a simple straightforward narrative

Focus on objects, respectfully treated, or a narrow

definition of context

Conveys authority

Some of the rules for exhibition; Model is an old-fashioned university lecture!

What would happen if we broke these rules?


Object rules

What counts as an object is narrowly defined:

museum quality, old, original condition, of interest to
a curators scholarly interest

Display objects in a respectful way

Keep objects safe, forever, even if that means not

using them

To what extent are curators thinking of the big picture of the museum, to
what extent their own work? what structures shape collecting?


Curator Rules

The curator is the expert

The curator is an academic subject-matter specialist,

not a generalist

The curator is anonymous, the voice of the museum

The curator is not part of the story

And finally: the curator rules? The traditional rule is that the curator is an
expert, and a specialist - and that expertise is defined as academic, subject
matter expertise. This assumption about the nature of expertise allows the
curator to be not a person, not part of the story, but an anonymous voice of

This last rule seems so central to museums - but broken now in every other
medium. What would happen if we broke these rules?


Some final thoughts on how we might break the rules. What if we put the
audience first? If our collections and exhibits overcame the bureaucratic
structures of the museum? If we first asked, as John Cotton Dana
suggested, how might we be useful?


Finally, to return to the question of innovation, change, and challenge in

todays museum.


Todays museum, Ive suggested, inherits a great many rules - assumptions,

expectations - from a long history of museums. But its also a moment when
we are getting better about acknowledging that we can break some of those
rules. (Though not good enough, Id say.)

Breaking Rules

Let go. Share authority. Its not about you.

Put the audience first.

Overcome bureaucracy.

Make museums useful.

Todays Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge

Todays Museum


What innovations are need? Not technological ones - though it seems that
the digital space opens up new possibilities for story telling and sharing.
Rather, the innovations needed are cultural - new ways of thinking about our
work, the culture of our organizations.


Opening up our work - taking a hard look at our culture - will help us change.
And thats the greatest challenge.

Todays Museum: Innovation

Todays Museum: Innovation, Change and Challenge


Thank you

George Scharf, Staircase

of the old British Museum
in Montagu House, 1845