Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blueprint Book Club Part 1: How Do You Create a Future-Thinking History Museum?

Note: If you have read the book and would like to write a guest post for this series, please contact me.

Imagine you've just been tasked with developing an innovative, future-thinking national museum for your country's history. Where would you start? How would you decide what to include, what tone to take, and how to present the material? How would you navigate the political minefields of such an endeavor?

Blueprint is the story of a group of people who tried to create a Dutch Museum of National History (INNL). In 2008, when this group was assembled, they had political backing, financial support, and an energetic approach to their work. By the end of 2011, the House of Representatives withdrew its political and financial support. The staff was fired, the digital projects divvied out to other institutions, the plans for the physical museum shelved. The Museum directors released Blueprint as a showcase for these plans. Still seething from the outcome, they didn't mince words; in the foreword, they state that "the rise and fall of the Museum of National History will be recorded as confirmation of a range of Dutch deficiencies." These guys won't be running for office anytime soon.

Blueprint is a maddening sketch of the museum that might have been, one that alternates between shaky and bold strokes. The majority of the book is a tour of the conceptualized physical institution, with smaller sections devoted to the political history of the project and the activities (mostly participatory, distributed, and digital) that the team undertook from 2009-2011 to start building their constituency. The root of my frustration with the book is not that the project never came to fruition. It's that the project, which was pitched as a whole new approach to museum-making, seems inconsistent. The media strategy is impressive. The early participatory projects are terrific. But the interpretative plan for the physical site seems incredibly ordinary.

The gallery and building descriptions make the museum sound like an early-2000s multi-media production in the model of the International Spy Museum, the Newseum, or any number of Gallagher & Associates or Ralph Applebaum creations. Immersive design. A mixture of chronology and thematic approaches. Hooks based on popular culture. Few objects surrounded by supporting media. Lots of screens. Limited interactivity. Starchictecture. There's nothing wrong with this kind of museum, but we've all seen several like it. It's hardly a model for an entirely new approach to museum design. There's barely a peep about the balance between exhibitions and programs, the role and use of public spaces, or the relationship between the institution and its communities. Beyond being media-rich and object-light, the plan has little to distinguish it from traditional museums.

In contrast, the activities undertaken to promote and launch the museum are truly inspiring. In three years, INNL created a series of fresh, exciting approaches to engaging communities with history. These include:
  • New Greetings From... - a national competition in which 8,000 people submitted photographs to represent the iconic image of the Netherlands. 
  • Freedomtrain - an exhibition about the history of liberation in 20th century Netherlands that was housed entirely inside a train that traveled the country throughout the spring of 2010.
  • Xwashier - a Foursquare-style mobile app in which people could encounter historic sites throughout the country and retrieve multi-media content about the history while onsite.
  • One Minutes - a film competition in which students and young filmmakers made one minute films on the theme of "where history begins."
  • National Vending Machine - a travelling vending machine that invites people to connect with everyday objects that represent various aspects of the Dutch experience and history.
Each of these projects is people-centered, invites meaningful participation, and interprets the idea of a national history in a novel way. I was surprised, shocked even, that the plans for the physical museum included almost none of the ingenuity I saw in these planning projects. The description of the building is a straight-ahead depiction of gallery content, with almost no discussion of who the museum is for, how visitors will engage, and how they will interact with each other. There are hints of innovation--mentions of a digital backbone, an individualized content delivery system, a few games, a central forum--but those elements are footnotes to long descriptions of push media experiences in highly themed traditional exhibition spaces.

What are we to make of the difference between what INNL planned for the physical site and what it created in the digital and distributed world? To me, there are at least three plausible interpretations of the disconnect:
  1. Their brilliance was inconsistent. The team was highly innovative when it came to new media and national awareness-building projects, but when it came to planning an actual museum, they fell prey to existing formulas supplied by architects, consultants, curators, and designers. They focused too much on the admittedly challenging question of how to reposition the content of Dutch history and not enough on the question of how to reposition engagement with it in a museum setting. A team that was superb at relevant, audience-centered work outside the institution couldn't find a way to bring their fresh thinking inside.
  2. The book misrepresents the effort. The team was highly innovative, period. The plans for the museum are not representative of what they actually would have built based on their track record. For the purposes of the book, they focused on discussion of the objects, the scenes, and the building, but in reality, they would have built something much more distinctive and in keeping with their activities to date. This perspective may reflect overly wishful thinking; I realize it does not align with the museum plan as presented.
  3. The planning activities were just marketing. This is my most cynical interpretation, and I assume it's not true. But there is a strange undercurrent of "brand building" that runs through the whole book, and you could interpret the participatory, experimental projects as marketing ploys to prop up an otherwise traditional museum. In some ways, I am impressed by the INNL's strategy to launch targeted "awareness campaigns" to "stimulate a fascination with and involvement in the history of the Netherlands." It's clear that INNL had a truly broad scope and multi-media approach to connecting people with history. But given the traditional nature of the museum's interpretative plan, I wonder if citizen participation is a strategy that they saw as fitting for digital/marketing projects, but not for the serious work of a museum.
Was INNL a project to build a future-thinking museum of national history? What's your interpretation?

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