Thursday, February 8, 2024

Do You Need Walls to be a Museum?

Do you need walls to be a Museum?

It's a question worth asking again, as the Rubin Museum of Art recently announced that it would be closing its New York City museum building later this year -- essentially becoming a "museum without walls."

There are many instances of emerging museums starting out as "museums without walls," with the ultimate aim in those cases to end up inside a permanent museum home rather than reversing the sequence as the Rubin is doing.

But really, what are the essential qualities of a "museum"?  I would say that strong museum experiences are defined by three S words: Stuff, Stories, and Social. (Note that "Structure" isn't one of those S words!)

First, you need some kind of "STUFF," whether artifacts, collection objects, or exhibit elements.  Even completely digital museums, like the Girl Museum, still emphasize the notion of thematic exhibitions, albeit through purely online installations.

Secondly, you should have strong STORIES to share.  The FREE THE MUSEUM project works to share stories and place their installations in and around communities in places like parks, streets, or community gathering places rather than museum buildings.

And lastly, museums must be SOCIAL places, providing opportunities for people to gather and interact with each other.  The "new" Rubin Museum aims to provide such social opportunities for people to interact with new installations related to Himalayan Art by working with creative partners around the world.

So I would say you do NOT need walls to create strong and memorable museum experiences. 

However, it will be difficult for "wall-free museums" to shift the natural perception of so many members of the public who immediately think of permanent, physical buildings when the word "museum" comes up and consider museum buildings the mark of institutional legitimacy.

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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