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April 2, 2015

Outreach and the Museum of Everything Else


By M.W. Burns

Museums invite us to explore the wonders of the world we live in. They present subjects that have relevance in how we perceive and interact with our planet, everything on it, and all we know that lies beyond. They help us reflect on our world more clearly and be better equipped to understand and confront the global challenges we face. From the histories of civilization – to the process of photosynthesis, from life in the oceans, to the aerodynamics of a leaf falling from a tree, museums are places of discovery, evoking curiosity and promoting understanding. But why is it that when we leave the museum there is a sense of re-entering the ordinary? Consider all the history, culture and science at play when you walk down a city street, dig in the sand, shop for clothes, shovel snow, or cook a meal. Occasions for encountering the wonders of our world are everywhere, in everything, even in the most common places. While museums have the power to instill a deep appreciation of the world around us, their means of doing so happens in facilities separated from that world. The amazing encounters they offer are staged within brick and mortar structures. It is true we can find things in museums that otherwise would be far too difficult to access (or cease to exist altogether) if it were not for the care and protection museums provide; collections of exotic creatures, cultural treasures, rare phenomena. For these reasons, the museum will, and should always maintain its “edifice on the hill”. But when it comes to relevance there is an artificial separation between the museum and everything outside its walls. To succeed in enriching the connection people have to their world, museums need to operate in that world. They need to counter the perception that leaving the museum means leaving a place of history, science, or culture, when in fact the “ordinary” realm people re-enter is more packed with extraordinary things and experiences than all the museums combined could ever hope to contain.

That said, museums have been reaching beyond their walls for years through what is typically referred to as “outreach” programs. While there are many kinds of outreach they can be divided into three types: place-based, outpost and on-line. Perhaps the most pervasive mode of museum outreach today (due to its digital form) is the on-line museum. On-line (or virtual) museums share digitized assets, games and on-line tours with the public via the web, at home, or through other publically accessible institutions like libraries, schools and universities, cultural centers, etc..




On-line museums exist as digital proxies for real museums. It is debatable whether or not these websites count as "museums" per se, but they can widely disseminate a museum's digital resources. A more recent extension of the on-line museum is the concept of the "distributed museum".  In 2011 Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo from University of Southern California, presented a paper at the Museums and the Web Conference in Philadelphia. The paper was titled “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture”. Here they described the distributed museum as “the form that the museum takes as it is part of the creation and movement among new spaces that comprise contemporary networked learning environments.”   In the Distributed Museum, the brick and mortar facility is replaced by the Internet. The concept is a logical outgrowth of the virtual, on-line museum, extended through digital technologies.  “No longer located in a particular physical space, the museum extends its presence through all sorts of on-line spaces on the Web as well as in the transient spaces created through the diverse practices and technologies of mobility”.

The outpost model operates in the real world and is what people often think of when they hear the term "outreach". It includes mobile museums (vehicles sent on the road), pop-up museums (stationary structures set up in available spaces like plazas and empty store fronts), school visits (one of the more established means of outreach, educators tote along samples of the museum’s collection and materials for conducting group activities), science fairs and festivals (erected under tents, in open air, or inside event spaces.). In general the outpost model entails “exporting” the experience to a location with little focus on the place itself. In other words, rather than basing activities, or events on the features of a place, things from the museum are packed up and transported to a space to be presented.


Clockwise from top left: SparkTruck, The Mobile Observatory Project, Smithsonian's Animal Connections interior, Smithsonian's Animal Connections exterior

Clockwise from top left: Irish Georgian Society Pop-up Museum, Nomadic Museum, Tiny "Museum", BMW-Guggenheim Lab, Sidney Marti Gras Museum, Moving Icon, Higgens Art Gallery and Museum Pop-up, Mobile




Clockwise from top left: "Why's and How's" Milwaukee Public Museum outreach, Kentucky Derby Museum outreach, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History outreach, Henricus Historical Park outreach



Rhode Island Mini Faire

In many ways this has the same effect as the museum’s brick and mortar building in that, once the fair is over, once the pop up is de-installed, once the mobile unit drives away, once the museum educator leaves the classroom with their props and materials, nothing remains. Yes, there may be souvenirs or objects made by participants, and it can be said that the memory remains, but for all intents and purposes the circus has left town.

The place-based model is the opposite of the outpost. Instead of bringing materials to an available space, it uses the physical components, qualities and/or meanings of a place itself as a platform for activity; the preexisting environment provides either the subject of focus, or serves as a primary element, or resource of an activity or event. Place-based learning includes projects that focus on the natural, cultural and social history of a place, advancing (often local) environmental stewardship and civic engagement.  Examples of place-based models include nature treks, urban walking tours, geocaching activities and survival camps, as well as collaborative citizen science projects like monitoring and recording natural and built environments, community action projects involving participants in real world problem solving, and projects with local cultural groups. But place based approaches are probably the most underdeveloped and unexplored forms of outreach in terms of the depth and breadth of engagement they offer. 



Clockwise from top left: The Overbrook Nature Center at Stamford Museum & Nature Center, From My City: London Tours, The Big Bus Tour of London, Soundwalk- Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, Museum of London – Street Museum, Geocaching -Experience Hope BC, (center) Great Adventures Tours.


To be sure, there are numerous examples of museums engaging the public outside the museum setting. We find museums experimenting with mobile app based touring technologies providing content about the places we visit while walking or driving. We see real world games and challenges designed around subjects like history and math, some even inspiring annual events. And there are numerous citizen science and crowdsourcing projects at work, all of which occur outside the museum’s property line. Museum outreach has come a long way from carrying boxes of artifacts and specimens around to public schools. But outreach programs still only account for minor flourishes around the edges of museum operations. There are a number of reasons for this, one being sheer cost. Museums have a hard time balancing their budgets for what goes on inside their institutions let alone what might happen in the vast expanse of everyplace else.  One hang up might be in the way we typically think about outreach. Our concept of activating the everyday world may be too caught up in the logic of traditional museum operations. Granted, the world is a big place and occupying it with forms of engagement that offer the same intensity and focus of those found inside museums might seem impossible, but we need to understand that the foundations for informal learning are there, right in front of us.

Imagine an informal learning ecosystem designed around the unique qualities of the environments we inhabit. Because the place-based approach draws upon preexisting components of a given environment it offers the broadest range of engagement, and unlike the outpost model, comes already equipped with its scientific, cultural and historical points of focus. For museums to truly connect us to subjects as they exist in our lives, and to serve the broader public, there needs to be a museology that can address the complexities, challenges and opportunities non-museum settings present, a ubiquitous museology at home in the everyday world. Ultimately, this means recognizing that the world outside the museum is already a collection of sites, things, people and phenomena ripe for museum activation.  It also means understanding that every object of focus is pan-disciplinary - a place is actually many places offering myriad perspectives and interactions. To help illustrate this lets consider the example below.


What do you see here? You might pass by this urban scene on your way to work, or school, or just taking a walk. But imagine that this is a gallery in a science museum. What subjects can you envision being addressed here? To begin, we can find any number of topics related to botany, or the material makeup of the built environment, urban infrastructure, automobile technology, engineering, or even the weather. Now imagine this environment is in a zoo. What might we be learning about? Well, there are all sorts of mammals including squirrels, mice, rats and bats. Then there are reptiles and plenty of birds and insects. An inventory of the site would no doubt reveal an incredible wealth of animals. Now let's imagine this is of a gallery in a history museum. We might learn something about the history of urban planning, or architectural styles, the history of this neighborhood and the stories of those who have lived here, to list just a few. Now look out your window and ask the same questions.

Extracting museum experiences from existing conditions lends the widest, most diverse and certainly most immediate range of informal learning environments possible. However, activating everyday places requires not only recognizing the opportunities a place offers, but understanding the social, legal, political and psychological circumstances that differentiate operating outside the museum from inside. Currently there is no thorough guide, no handbook, or set of ground rules for approaching informal learning in everyday environments. Thousands of organizations have conducted studies on learning in informal settings, so there is no lack of literature on this topic. Why then, is there no comprehensive set of principals for developing and designing informal learning experiences in the real world?  

In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences published a report entitled "Learning Science in Informal Environments- People Places and Pursuits" that synthesized numerous studies in an attempt to identify general guidelines for informal (science) learning environments. These environments included designed spaces, programs and everyday settings. But as the report concluded:

"One complicating factor in efforts to synthesize [these studies] is that the evidence base reflects the diversity of the evidence and is informed by a range of disciplines and perspectives, including field-based research, evaluations, visitor studies, design studies, and traditional experimental psychological studies of learning. The purposes of these studies, their conceptions of learning and goals, and the methods and measures they employ vary tremendously. Consequently, there is no basis for targeted, systematic, and efficient knowledge accumulation, and it is difficult to leverage research to guide policy and practice".

Because of the unique trajectories of past studies there are many challenges in establishing comprehensive guidelines for a museology of everyday places. But perhaps in this case, the search for a set of conventions is less relevant than an understanding of how to cope with the wide diversity of circumstances everyday settings consist of. Unlike empty exhibition halls, everyday places exert themselves in all sorts of unique ways. In addition to studying the opportunities a place offers, a deep evaluation of the site's conditions, preexisting uses and its users may be what is most critical. In other words, what is probably more important than a set of rules for activating real world sites is an understanding of the kinds of assessments needed (based on the site itself) to inform the development of effective museological applications.

In 2006 the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research at the University of Tasmania, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and the National Museum of Australia conducted a research project called "Committing to Place" to investigate "means of activating and maintaining community participation in natural and cultural resource initiatives" One of their conclusions seems to be extremely important for devising place-based informal learning experiences:

"A key finding was that being flexible when developing and implementing collaborative projects should be seen as a strength, not a weakness. This indicates that project developers are responding to new information and changing circumstances. The research identified two key points for institutional flexibility: skills for collaboration and capacity building; and the importance of evaluation".

The capacity to approach the dynamic, multivalent conditions of real world settings is one of the primary challenges in designing experiences outside of museum galleries. Content, as well as design strategies, can be drawn from the site itself. We can find inspiration in other practices working in preexisting, public conditions. Non-museum endeavors like Tactical urbanism, pervasive (or location-based) gaming, street art and transmedia narrative offer museums viable models for activating our everyday world.  While the practices of ubiquitous museology may need to be more organic, and less duplicative than with traditional museology, it has the potential of accomplishing the museum's educational goals on a far greater scale.

Museums as we know them, with all of the treasures they collect, protect and share, will never be replaced. But in addition to their role as keepers of artifacts and specimens, they have a crucial obligation to deepening the connection people have to their world, a world that is itself a vast collection. By distilling forms of museum engagement from everyday places, museums can forge more significant bonds with audiences, and optimize their contribution to a well-informed and engaged public.

Reference, Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo, “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture”, 2011 (consulted Nov. 2014)

Susana Smith Bautista, “Museum in the Digital Age: Changing Meaning of Place, Community and Culture”, AltaMira Press, November 26, 2013

Nancy Proctor, "The Museum as Distributed Network", Museum iD, 2011, (consulted 9/10/14), http//, Elizabeth Merritt, "Ethics and the Distributed Museum", Feb 23, 2012 (consulted 9/9/14)

Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors, "Learning Science in Informal Environments- People Places and Pursuits", National Academy of Sciences, 2009

Frank Vanclay, Ruth Lane, Damian Lucas, Jo Wills, Ian Coates, and Sophie Henry, Committing to Place: museum outreach as NRM extension“. The Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research, RMIT University, National Museum of Australia, 2006 




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