AAM Rundown 7: The Museum as Prototype

Rube Goldberg Machine 2

Prototypes aren’t just for wacky inventions — all the cool museum kids are using ’em!

We’re nearing the end of my AAM series… only a few more interviews and session recaps to go! This one was one of my favorite sessions at AAM, and I’ve been holding off writing about it out of fear that I won’t do it justice. But as the walrus said, the time has come to talk of many things. No, not of shoes and ships and sealing wax, but of prototyping as a philosophy. If you’ve ever worked in exhibition development, or evaluations, you know how engrossing it can be to tinker with prototypes, making improvements with each iteration. So why not apply this tinkering mindset to the museum as a whole, not just a panel here or interactive game over there? Many museums are being forced to reconsider their traditional practices in an attempt to connect with audiences, though with limited funding there’s an understandable fear of taking risks — what if this new exhibit/program/whatever fails, and we have no money left to try something new? The speakers for this session told their stories in hopes of convincing more of us to embrace risk and try something new.

The Museum as Prototype


  • Kathleen McLean (Principal, Independent Exhibitions)
  • Barbara Henry (Center Director, OMCA LAB, Oakland Museum of California)
  • Lyndel King (Director and Chief Curator, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota)
  • Merilee Mostov (Assistant Director of Education for Visitor Engagement, Columbus Museum of Art)
  • Nina Simon (Executive Director, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History)

What do these women mean by “museum as prototype”? Essentially, they’re advocating embracing the tinkering/prototyping mentality in every museum endeavor. It goes beyond prototyping exhibit elements and extends to applying this mentality to programs, business models and more. The ultimate goal is not prototyping for prototyping’s sake, though — by focusing on process and ideas over product, the speakers often succeeded in transforming the dynamic of the museum visit into something more energetic, loose, and experimental.

Before adopting the “whole museum as a prototype” mindset, first, know thyself. You (or your institution) will need to be flexible and tolerant of ambiguity, risk and failure. Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer once said that “nothing’s finished”, and as Kathy McLean reminded us, this means embracing process and change rather than perfection. Oftentimes in museums, particularly art museums, a design mentality can kill the prototyping/evaluation process: by locking themselves in to a particular idea of what something should look like, those with a stake in the project find themselves unwilling to make changes. Other common prototype killers are…

  • process tyranny (“it has to be done just so, oh and did you fill out these forms?”)
  • authority and control (“this project is my baby, what I say goes”)
  • perfection fantasies (“I don’t want paper mockups, I want this first draft on carved solid wood!”)
  • premature finish (“shoot, the exhibit’s opening in two days, there’s no time to test anything”)

So how to avoid any or all of these? Well you could be lucky enough to work in an institution whose mission already embraces experimentation, or for a boss who’s similarly encouraging of trial and error, but more likely you’ll have to be the one to convince your institution to play along. First, you can reassure them that destruction of materials will be minimal. At the Oakland Museum of California, many exhibits are designed using cardboard mockups and paper labels out on the museum floor where the visitors interact with the elements, but don’t damage them. [NB: I get the impression that this would be typical of most museums, but zoos and a few science museums might be different cases.]

Second, you may be able to get your peers and higher-ups on your side by convincing them that visitors love rough cuts. It makes them feel like insiders, like they’re part of the process of making your museum great. “The things you think are prototypes may become iconic and popular”, Barbara Henry reminded us. This sort of popularity could buy you more support not just for permanent versions of the element in question, but for the prototyping process in general.

Prototyping may even lead to the types of outcomes that your museum intends for its visitors. Merilee Mostov gave the example of the Columbus Museum of Art, that changed its mission statement to include the phrase “creating great experiences with art for everyone”. This phrase emphasizes the experience over the art, the process over the product, which is fairly in keeping with the “museum as prototype” ethos. Additionally, the outcomes the museum sought for its visitors included creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. What better way to get visitors collaborating on a project, thinking critically about art and their own views, and exercising their creativity than to have them test out new program and exhibit ideas?

Speaking of ideas, here are just a few examples of the sort of “rough draft” activities the speakers have tried around their own museums:

  • Supply visitors with things they can place throughout the museum, thereby leaving their mark. A few art museums have supplied paper hearts in their galleries for Valentine’s Day, cutouts that visitors could place by the artworks they love best, or think have something to do with love. Other museums let their visitors come up with sample labels, or write down on post-it notes what they’d like to know about a certain object. There’s also the award-winning “I went to MoMA and…” cards that I mentioned in a previous post. In all these cases, the visitors can participate in a fun activity that’s meaningful, and the museum learns something valuable about its audiences, not to mention find out what’s working and what isn’t.
  • People love board games, whether they’re re-appropriating existing ones or making up new ones. It’s not expensive to make the games, and visitors learn while they play (bonus: increased retention time).
  • Make your talkback/feedback boards flexible. This could mean using mobile stations, or perhaps just changing out the questions on a regular basis. In any event, do make sure to actually read the visitor responses and change them out!
  • Turn your survey stations into a memorable experience (ex: the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History turned their survey station into a photo booth for one exhibition). The act of giving feedback becomes an activity with value of its own. It doesn’t have to be a photo booth: be creative, and adapt the survey space to your museum’s own voice/interests.
  • Ask visitors what they would like to see. I suppose you could ask this on one of the talkback boards, but I felt like reiterating it, because it’s important for visitors to feel like the museum is genuinely interested in their thoughts and experiences. If you’re in a small enough community, you might try asking for visitors’ contact information so that you can get back to them for more clarification, or to let them know how their input is being used. Another option is to pull in niche audiences. You’ll resolve accessibility issues while prototyping, and establish strong relationships with communities that are often overlooked.

I don’t think any of the speakers are in favor of filling a museum solely with prototypes (though people can have a ton of fun in an arcade made entirely of cardboard). Visitors do come to see completed exhibits, and they do appreciate polished, professional work. I think it’s the juxtaposition of the complete with the ever-changing that adds the necessary energy to a visit. The question then becomes where to add these prototype elements so that they have the biggest positive impact. Nina Simon said that before you put prototypes out on the museum floor, you need to have a compelling reason to try something new. If something’s already working, you probably don’t want to spend your time and energy there. If you’re facing major problems, like the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History‘s lack of money and public awareness, that’s when you should definitely try something new, because how much worse could it get? A museum doesn’t have to be in such dire straights to adopt the prototyping mentality though. It just needs to have an actual question it wants answered (and no, “will people like it?” doesn’t count). To answer the question, the museum should take on a genuinely experimental approach, with both changing and controlled elements, and be open to unintended results. This may sound like evaluation, and well it should. Evaluations should be systematic, targeted to an actual question, and result in actual changes.

How do you make prototyping integral to the institutional culture? Visitors respond to the energy of risky projects, but many top level managers are wary of such risks. The visitors’ fear isn’t the issue, it’s the management’s tolerance of risk. Perhaps the only way to get people to come around and let go of the fear is to start small, and accumulate little successes here and there. Nina Simon also recommended getting interns to take on these new projects. If staff members are interested in an intern’s idea, they can jump on board, but there’s no pressure on them. The interns get leadership experience, and since they haven’t been living in a museum silo, they can implement some truly original ideas.

Another benefit of bottom-up prototyping is that you don’t lose momentum by overthinking it. I once tried to pitch a visitor response board to a zoo, and though everyone was generally in favor of the idea, there were so many administrative hurdles to cross to get zoo-wide sign-off for this one board that it never happened. It was very easy to say “let’s shelve this and think about how we can incorporate it into a museum-wide educational strategy”, and while that’s a valid reason, it meant we never got to see how visitors reacted to a talkback board of any kind. If you are involved in a top-down prototype project, just remember that short timelines can be your friend — the time crunch will combat the overthinking issue, and you won’t get so attached to an idea that it will become static/sacred. People’s opinions of your design and use of your prototype will change it, and that’s ok.

As I mentioned above, prototyping doesn’t just apply to exhibits and programs. You can tinker with any part of the museum’s structure (maybe not structural support beams). One of the most “outside the box” examples of turning the museum into a prototype came from Nina Simon, who brought up the disconnect between traditional hours of operation, and the hours when people are actually free to visit. Why not experiment with alternative hours of operation — not just for once-a-week nighttime events, but on a larger scale? If most of your attendance comes from events, perhaps it’s time to change the way you think about your institution (it’s not a bad thing at all, just different). You could discover a whole new audience, and unlock a new niche for your museum in the community. I’m hoping to see other museums play around with the traditional 10-5 model, if only so that I can finally visit a  museum on a weekday.

If you’re still interested, here are Nina’s own slides for this “Museum as prototype” presentation.

As always, if you know of any neat museum-as-prototype stories, please share them in the comments section!

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