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On the Collection in the Ubiquitous Museum 
July 23, 2016
By M.W. Burns

One of the defining features of a museum is its collection1. But what constitutes the collection in the ubiquitous museum, and how does it relate to those of traditional museums? While it's easy enough to simply say "the ubiquitous collection consists of everything", this overlooks the dimensions, terms and conditions that give it form and availability.

In the second half of the 20th century the Environmental and Cultural Heritage movements emerged almost simultaneously ushering in a new awareness of the world and redefining our role in it. While efforts to preserve our natural and cultural heritage existed well before the 20th century, it was the 1960’s that experienced a sudden international response to the ravages of war and industrialization. The feeling of urgency is evident in the World Wildlife Fund’s manifesto from 1961: "...They need above all money, to carry out missions and to meet conservation emergencies by buying land where wildlife treasures are threatened, money, for example, to pay guardians of wildlife refuges ...for educations among those who would care... For sending experts to danger spots and training... Making it all possible that their needs are met before it is too late." - Morges Manifesto.  

In 1965 the World Heritage Trust was established to protect "the world's superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry." This was followed in 1968 with the development of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) that proposed a similar course of action. Friends of the Earth was founded in 1969.  Earth Day was declared on April 22, 1970. Greenpeace was established in 1971, and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) adopted the IUCN ‘s “World Heritage Convention”, presented in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment.

"Earthrise" Courtesy of NASA

The 1970’s saw the environmental movement become a global phenomenon, inspired by authors like Rachael Carson (Silent Spring, 1962) and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968), as well as a photograph of Earth, taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 space mission. That image, now known as Earthrise, depicted our home as a fragile, finite island floating in the darkness of space above the barren lunar surface. It became an icon of a new consciousness and international mission - protect and preserve the planet.

This new appreciation of our cultural and natural heritage has reshaped our view of the Earth as home to a global accumulation of artifacts and specimens, and placed us in a role of stewardship. We are all, in some way, keepers of a vast collection.

Some will argue that, while protecting cultural heritage can be equated with caring for collections in museums, the environmental movement had less to do with preserving a collection of "memories" and more to do with conserving "resources" as a means of human survival. The Earth, after all, is our life support system. But as the zoos, aquariums and conservatories of the world will tell you - engagement with collections of plants and animals, and teaching people to appreciate and participate in the protection of our natural resources are inextricably tied together. The missions of most legitimate zoos, aquariums and conservatories are rooted in the idea that the encounters they provide helps us gain an appreciation for the natural world, and in so doing helps protect the natural balance of the planet and thus our own well-being. Similarly, we should recognize cultural memory as a resource and ultimately a matter of civilization’s survival.

A little over 50 years old, the global effort to protect the world's cultural and natural heritage has only just begun. The map below shows terrestrial and inland water environments (in green) and marine environments (in blue) protected by a coalition of countries around the world. In 2014 protected areas totaled 18.8 percent of the Earth with a goal to reach 27 percent by 2020.

Source - Protected Planet Report 2014, United Nations Environment Program,

The once noble goal of conquering the earth has been substituted by an ambition to protect it, and it is within the atmosphere of this global mission that a glimmer of the ubiquitous museum begins to appear. As the marshland across the road is deemed a natural reserve, as the town’s bank building is given historic status, as things that seemed “commonplace” yesterday are regarded as “special” today, it is short sighted to think the ubiquitous museum’s collection is limited to the scope of currently zoned heritage sites. The recognition that the world is a treasure trove of amazing things, each one a portal to fascinating stories and enriching encounters, is not bound by legal designations. For ubiquitous museology, what constitutes the collection includes, but also goes completely beyond, things protected by governmental, institutional or private endeavors.

Typically, museum collections are differentiated from other objects in the museum by being accessioned – a formal process of taking legal ownership and responsibility of a thing or group of things. In many ways this parallels the processes by which cultural and natural heritage sites are adopted and legally protected. Other artifacts and specimens in museum exhibitions that are not accessioned often act as “stand-ins” for missing ones, or are used for hands-on public engagement. Generally speaking these objects are considered part of the collection too, and although they may be “the real thing” they are not protected under the same stringent rules as accessioned objects. In short, the term collection is applied to every object in the museum intended for public engagement, including things only accessible under special circumstances (for scholarly research, etc.). But under the scope of ubiquitous museology the collection would also include the objects on sale in the museum store, or personal items occupying the curators desk, things in the security guard’s pockets, or the stuff left behind on trays in the museum café.

CULTURAL ARTIFACTS: Left - accessioned artifacts. Right - curators personal items


In the ubiquitous museum the collection does not end once we are beyond the museum’s perimeter. It includes anything within our frame of experience, regardless of where we are. Although we may have exited a zoo, conservatory, or art museum we are still surrounded by animals, plants and cultural artifacts. These things are not set aside, or isolated from other things by an authority.  They do not have to be validated by an institution, or laws. They are not legitimized by their uniqueness, or monetary value, but by their applicability to a particular topic, or activity, or by simply sparking curiosity in the moment.

Selected items from the ubiquitous collection


In Situ

While it is true that protected cultural and environmental heritage sites remain in situ, most traditional museum collections are made up of things removed from their original locations. From Pueblo Indian pottery arranged in a glass vitrine to the polar bear swimming in an acrylic tank, museum2 collections have been extracted from their functional and environmental contexts. This is not the case in the ubiquitous museum. Things in their ordinary circumstances, living and non-living, serving their utilitarian functions, or wild in their natural settings are as much a part of the collection as those things set aside for posterity.

Being part of the everyday world, occurrences that are typically guarded against in museum collections (e.g. the natural deterioration of an object, or the meeting of predator and prey) are accepted in the ubiquitous museum. This does not mean that ubiquitous museology condones conflict, or the depreciation of things. It is primarily concerned with modes of engagement among pre-existing conditions, whether this pertains to a protected historic site, the rusting hood of car, or a bird stealing another’s eggs. And this is a key point! While the care and management of a collection is central to traditional museology, ubiquitous museology operates within the inherent (evolving) structures, systems and processes, natural as well as human-made, that make up the living, breathing world. And just as the ubiquitous collection is exposed to the elements (also part of the collection), we ourselves are exposed to the collection in ways that visitors to museums, or heritage sites are not.




So far the implications of what constitutes the collection are physical/material things whether we are talking about objects, places or phenomena. But there are also intangibles - social practices, gestures, rituals, spoken languages, performances, etc. Intangibles are the immaterial transmissions of their performers. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2003 states;

The depository of this heritage is the human mind, the human body being the main instrument for its enactment, or – literally – embodiment. The knowledge and skills are often shared within a community, and manifestations of ICH often are performed collectively”

The convention goes on -

“Many elements of [intangible cultural heritage] are endangered, due to effects of globalization, uniformization policies, and lack of means, appreciation and understanding which - taken together - may lead to the erosion of functions and values of such elements and to lack of interest among the younger generations.” 

Documentation is of course the best way to gather “records” of intangibles, but it does nothing to preserve the actual occurrence. Because the human being is the “main instrument” of intangible cultural heritage it was necessary to protect the sources of these transmissions by designating certain individuals, or groups as “living human treasures”. While Japan began selecting (collecting) people as national treasures in 1950, followed by South Korea (1964), Thailand (1985) and Philippines (1988)3 it was not until 1993 that South Korea proposed to UNESCO’s Executive Board the establishment of a Living Human Treasure Program. The program was adopted in 2003 safeguarding the production/perpetuation of intangible cultural heritage through officially inducted people. Through a selected few, the program would encourage and support the protraction of these traditions from generation to generation.

Because UNESCO is itself an artifact in the ubiquitous collection, its designation of a select few as “living human treasures” is understood as a feature of that organization’s operational tactics, but under the umbrella of ubiquitous museology they do not represent the total.


Ubiquitous museology embraces the natural transformation of culture. The way language, music, rituals, social practices, and performances are nuanced (usually unintentionally) from person to person, or morphed from generation to generation, is a natural process that must be conserved - a process that makes each of us an integral source of an intangible collection.

How the Ubiquitous Collection is Organized

Museum collections tend to be grouped under academically accepted classifications. This also provides a basis for spatially organizing things inside the museum’s collections facility. But while academic classifications can be used to identify things in the everyday world, the ubiquitous collection is obviously not spatially organized in this way. Things are scattered, intermingled and transient. Yet within this hodgepodge are layers of overlapping order that already lend structure to the ubiquitous collection. 

With a few exceptions, all of what could be considered the collection; everything we see, hear, and feel, exists as (or takes place upon) property. So, for ubiquitous museology, one of the most important factors regarding the collection is our accessibility to property. 

When we are in a museum it is clear that the things we find there belong (in one way or the other) to that museum, which has its own means in place for allowing access to the collection. But in the everyday world, property is divided and managed in different ways affecting access. These generally fall into three basic categories; public, private, and personal.

Public property is state, federal or community owned property not restricted to any one person’s possession or use.  Public property includes parks, schools, athletic fields, bike paths, roads, sidewalks, playgrounds, city squares, public libraries & museums, municipal parking garages, courthouses, city halls, and, of course, cultural and natural heritage sites.

Private property is anything owned by individuals or corporations other than the government. This would include residential properties like single-family homes, townhouses, multi-residential, etc. as well as their furnishings and fixtures. The private property owner has absolute control and rights over the property. Private property also includes commercial properties like banks, malls, supermarkets, retail stores, restaurants, gyms, gas stations, hotels, etc.

Then there is Personal property. This is private property distinguished from other people’s property because it is yours! This is no doubt the most accessible. After personal property, public property is most accessible, followed by private property. But even private properties like malls, supermarkets, retail stores, etc. will allow tremendously broad opportunities for engagement.

Beyond property

There is another category that is beyond property ownership by an individual, corporation, non-profit or government. The things that constitute international waters for example, or the Earths atmosphere, 22.2 km (12 nautical miles) above its surface. Beyond 22.2 km you are as free as you are on the high sea… for the most part. In 2001 UNESCO adopted a treaty called the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. It is meant to protect "all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character," that have been under water for over a century. This protects shipwrecks, sunken cities, prehistoric artwork, treasures in danger of being looted, sacrificial and burial sites, and submerged shipping ports. One can imagine a time in the future when space junk will be protected as cultural heritage. In 2011 NASA began drafting guidelines for preserving Apollo moon landing sites as “space heritage”.5  

Marine and lunar artifacts

While designations of property help us understand the level of access we have to a place, or thing once we reach it, its location among the jumble of things making up our world is another matter. Here, the constructs lending a sense of organization to our everyday lives – clocks and calendars, road signs, mall directories, the standardized layouts of supermarkets and retail spaces, elevator buttons, street addresses, transit schedules, zip codes, maps, weather tracking, pedestrian way-finding, GIS, etc., all primarily focused on helping us find things in time/space – will provide adequate levels of organization to how the ubiquitous collection is arranged, and ultimately found.

Open-Source Miscellany

As far as identifying things in the collection, systems of classification used in museums, or other academic institutions are perfectly applicable, but we should never feel bound to these designations. Classifications are always relative. For example the Nike of Samothrace is classified as art, and more specifically, ancient Greek sculpture. But it could also be considered a geological, or even zoological specimen in that the material it is made of (marble) is a metamorphic rock derived from limestone that consists of the skeletons of ancient sea animals. The everyday things around you are similarly multivalent, and chances are can each exist under a variety of classifications.

Ultimately the ubiquitous collection should be approached as open-source, letting the curiosities or intentions of its users determine how a particular item is addressed/handled/shared relative to the conditions at hand. And this brings us back to the central point.

At the heart of what distinguishes the collection in the ubiquitous museum from those in traditional museums is that the former begins with things in their ordinary state of being. That the collection’s organization is established by everyday systems of order, that access to the collection begins with the delineations of property, that the collection is always subjected to the exertions of its natural circumstances, all follows from the fact that the collection begins right in front of you.


Notes and References

1 We find institutions, like some science centers, or children’s “museums",  that  do not maintain a collection per se. Instead they may operate as a venue for traveling exhibitions or function more as a facility for accommodating programs and labs for hands-on informal learning activities. 

2 The term museum is used throughout this article as meaning all types of museums including those with living collections like zoos, aquariums, conservatories, etc.

3  Geoparks and Intangible Cultural Heritage Working Group (GICHWG) “Living Human Treasure UNESCO Program”, 2012, consulted June 2016, . Consulted May 2016

4   “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts”, July, 20, 2011, Consulted June 2016


General References:

Protected Planet Report 2014, United Nations Environment Program, 2014,

Key Concepts of Museology, André Desvallées and François Mairesse, 2010,, . Consulted May 2016

World Heritage Site,, Wikipedia. Consulted June 2016,

Boundless, “The Levels of Classification.” Boundless Biology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 08 Jul. 2016 from Consulted May 2016

Protected Area,, Wikipedia. Consulted May 2016


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