Monday, March 29, 2010

A Bright Future

The Center for the Future of Museums blogged last week about one possible museum future. In this imagined scenario, 24 years in the future, a museum stays relevant to a changed education system by supplementing its small permanent exhibits with an aggressive program of changing exhibits.

The scenario describes a museum focused on three key principles:

1) "Perpetual beta": To summarize, the changing exhibits are always works in progress.

2) "The process is also the product": The museum recruits students to serve on the teams developing the exhibits, and 60% of the students are non-local.

3) "Don't collect, don't preserve": This one involves using a 3-D printer to make copies of original artifacts for exhibitions, an interesting idea you can read more about here.

The first two principles seem especially useful and timely concepts for the many small to mid-size museums in this area to explore.

To take just one example, what could the American Swedish Historical Museum do with this model of changing exhibits and student involvement?

The American Swedish Historical Museum

I visited this interesting jewel for the first time this winter. Located in FDR Park, near Broad Street and Pattison Avenue (down near the sports complexes), the museum was founded in 1926 during the Sesquicentennial celebration in South Philly. After surviving the Great Depression, the museum held its grand opening in 1938, the 300th anniversary of the New Sweden Colony.

The museum is designed as a collection of miniature museums, each focused on an "area of Swedish accomplishment." Some exhibition rooms have decidedly 1930s flare, making the decor itself as visually interesting as the objects on display. The changing exhibit gallery is currently presenting work from two Swedish artists as part of Philagrafika 2010.

The museum's Pioneer Room, a romanticized 1939 version of a 19th century Swedish farmhouse

Obviously, this museum, like so many others, must grapple with limited resources and too many potential challenges to count. But what could the American Swedish Historical Museum do with another changing exhibit space, perhaps online?

Could the small staff create a model of vibrant, changing exhibitions that evolve over time, involve students, and further their mission of preserving and promoting Swedish and Swedish-American heritage, history and culture?

The museum's current galleries are so diverse that online exhibitions could explore topics as varied as New Sweden colonists' life in the 1640s to technological innovations like the first working propeller and early solar-powered engines. And involving students in the creation and evolution of such online exhibitions could connect the museum to audiences far beyond the Philadelphia region.

Certainly that's the kind of museum future I'd like to see.

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