Blog Archives

Collections Access: Open the Door Wider

Thanks to museum audience engagement expert, Nina Simon, for first posting this opinion piece by C2C team member, Adrienne Berney, in last week’s Museum 2.0 blog.

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

Followers of Museum 2.0 are well versed in new ideas for audience engagement and committed to opening up their institutions to increase public access. But this is not always the first priority for professionals in the museum field. Some collections stewards, steeped as they are in professional artifact-protection standards, are reluctant to shift toward the more open version of institutional access that engagement advocates promote. Do these two directives and perspectives have to be at odds? Can collections access be a way to entice new audiences?

Recently, several subscribers to the RCAAM (Registrar’s Committee of AAM) listserv posted concerns about professional photographers and museum visitors taking photographs of objects on exhibition. One announced her intention to seek legal recourse against a photographer, and another warned that in the past her institution’s legal council had dissuaded that museum from seeking action. “Unfortunately,” that subscriber advised, there are no legal avenues to stop visitors from photographing objects or images in the public domain in public spaces where photography is allowed.

To me, this seems both discouraging and ungenerous to visitors. I stirred up a debate by raising the question “why not allow access?” I believe the museum field as a whole should do more to encourage reproductions of collection objects and images, regardless of whether reproducers hope for profits. I then encountered strong push-back on the listserv, with one subscriber calling my fitness for my job title, “collections care trainer,” into question. Respondents flexed their protective muscles to limit access to the artifacts they have pledged their professional lives to preserving. I’m listing most of the concerns voiced in that debate so that readers can assess the severity of each obstacle and can help generate ideas for surmounting them, toward a goal of more open collections access.

  • Increased risks for deterioration: most of us are familiar with the agents of deterioration and understand the varying risks to collections materials that access poses, especially as a result of increased handling and light exposure. Digitization can help offer safe access to collections.
  • Staff time: allowing access can be labor intensive for those in charge of collections. Institutions may not want to invest work hours into providing access for visitors who may then turn around and sell reproductions for their own profit. But if collection reproductions are a potential cash cow, then why aren’t more institutions pursuing product creation? Some history museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Sandy Springs Museum , have implemented innovative programs inviting artists into storage and galleries to create new works with collection items. But what about the potential creator who happens into an exhibit, gets an idea, and takes a picture? What if objects are already on exhibit and their reproduction involves no additional staff time? Should the museum impose a fee on reproducers or limit their pursuits in other ways? Keep in mind that enforcing limited-access policies requires significant staff time too, along with possible legal fees.
  • Copyright infringements: A large portion of historical collections are in the public domain. The Library of Congress advises collection users to go through a risk assessment process for each image they seek to reproduce. The LOC provides open access as a public service and the user assumes whatever risks may be involved in reproduction. Why can’t all collecting institutions take this position?
  • Misrepresentation of the artifact: I’m not sure what this means, perhaps reproducing only a portion of an artifact or splicing its image with another. If the reproducer includes a reference to the original source, does that offset the concern or increase it? In the case of documents, historians regularly argue about the meanings of various passages. If a scholar misrepresents a document, it’s his/her reputation on the line, rather than the repository’s. Why should museums arbitrate or otherwise limit creative vision?
  • Relatedly, poor quality images of artifacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor. In a footnote in her Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Malaro mentions that a museum might not want to be listed as the source of an image in certain reproduction applications for fear of appearing to endorse the product or its creator. A risk assessment may help clarify the danger: Is it riskier (in terms of failing to fulfill a museum’s mission) to allow access, with the potential for audiences to generate poor quality products, or riskier to keep tight control over collection materials? Can you think of any cases where a reproduction harmed an institution housing the original?
  • Contractual issues or donor restrictions: These are red flags for placing an artifact on exhibit or an online database. Experts advise museums against accepting restricted donations, and they are rare in history museums. The most likely donor restrictions prescribe access and call for “permanent exhibition.” In addition, some museums have worked with native tribes or other descendant groups to establish access guidelines for sensitive anthropological materials. Do you know of other donor contracts or restrictions (besides copyright) that would allow the display of an artifact and disallow its reproduction?
This image, created by artist Courtney Bellairs by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection, was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum's gift shop for the duration of the related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Artist Courtney Bellairs created this image in 2013 by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection. It was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum’s gift shop during a related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Given that public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, and that a large portion of collections (at least in history museums) are public domain materials, and that most donors give with the expectation of preservation and access for perpetuity, museum professionals should have a wide range to engage the public with collections. Allowing for exceptional cases where limited access would be necessary, can’t most of the above concerns be managed within an over-arching open-access approach to collections?

Without broad access, why should any community or institution go to the trouble and expense of preserving artifacts? Visitation has decreased significantly at historic sites and institutions since the 1980s and yet artifact-featured forms of entertainment like collector reality television shows and auctions have proliferated. Potential audiences feel connections with artifacts, so why don’t they participate in or support collecting institutions more often?  The Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands sets an exciting example by providing high quality collection images online and encouraging product creation. By allowing open access for creative reproduction, I suspect institutions could become more welcoming for those groups, and collections can function more fully as relevant and engaging resources.

How has your institution balanced collection concerns with its efforts to engage audiences? Do you view collections as a problematic juggernaut to avoid, or an indispensable resource base, or both? How can we safely steer the reflexive “no” toward a “probably” and open the door to more collections access?

Thanks to Allison Weiss, Executive Director of the Sandy Springs Museum, John Campbell, Collections Section Chief of the NC Museum of History, and RCAAM listserv respondents for their contributions to this post.

Ideas for Cultural Heritage Advocacy

Kudos and thanks to Professor Benjamin Filene, Director of Public History in the Museum Studies Program at UNC Greensboro for his recent op-ed piece in the News & Observer. Filene lamented legislative actions that have shrunk spending on cultural heritage in recent years, with especially painful cuts to our state’s Department of Cultural Resources divisions—the NC Museum of History and NC Historic Sites.

Museum guru Nina Simon, currently Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, has pinpointed two beneficial results, or “ripple effects,” that healthy cultural sectors provide for their communities. (Although Simon’s discussion focused on arts organizations, these same arguments can apply to the value of state and local history institutions.)

  • “A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument.”
  • “A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.”

In the conclusion to his op-ed piece, Filene discussed a third ripple effect.

  • the added layers of meaning that cultural sites and programs can offer to individual lives: “The arts and culture sustain our sense of who we are individually and collectively – of where we came from as a people and our sense of possibility for what we might yet become.”

As difficult as it is to quantify the economic impacts of cultural organization, these additional “ripple effects” are purely subjective and qualitative. As proponents of North Carolina history and culture, we can also argue that our museums and historic sites foster a greater sense of place for everyone, and this point builds upon both Simon’s and Filene’s ideas. Cultural heritage institutions make us all aware of the stratigraphic layers of human occupation on this land. In our hyper-mobile, electronically linked world, a connection to the land is a universal human truth that most of us do not want to evade completely. The reminders of that bond and how people have re-shaped it over time can help to sustain and enrich our communities—leaving the work we do vital and evolving.

What other ideas do you have to help justify public spending on cultural heritage? What arguments have had some success in your own communities?

New Uses for Old Typewriters

Typewriters have become so obsolete that they are artifacts in many cultural heritage museum collections. While it’s laudable to preserve those with rich provenances related to your institutional mission, it maybe worthwhile considering acquiring others for your site’s education collection. Several museums around the country have developed exhibit interactives and comment boards by using typewriters. The surprising thing about this activity is its attractiveness to Generations Y and young children. Youths know computer keyboarding well and a typewriter appears just familiar enough, yet different, to be intriguing.

Contents of Thomas Wolfe’s New York apartment in Hotel Chelsea on exhibit at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site

In addition to the way a useable typewriter beckons many visitors, these machines have two advantages as exhibition interactives.

  1. Affordability: Many selections are available on ebay for well under $100. Interested community members or businesses may even have some available to donate to your institution’s educational cause.
  2. Versatility: The typewriter relates to a variety of potential exhibition themes—antiquated office activities and literature production being among the more obvious. North Carolina has a wealth of writers from all regions of the state. Although representing them with non-book 3-dimensional objects can be a challenge, a typewriter interactive would be appropriate for those working in the late 19th – the late 20th centuries.

Letters to friends and family can be another topic that relates to many exhibit themes. Writing love letters on a typewriter was recently one of three participatory components of a “Love Lounge,” part of a larger exhibition on love in a California Museum. The museum’s director, Nina Simon, reported that it was “sleeper surprise” success and served as a quality participatory experience, rather than a quantity one. Although a small proportion of visitors chose the activity, those who did tended to work with it for awhile.

One potential disadvantage is the maintenance and repair involved in typewriters as participatory elements. Simon’s museum experienced many breakdowns, but always found visitors willing to help staff fix the machines. Ribbon jumping was the most common problem. For other museums planning this type of interactive, Simon recommends taking typewriters into repair shops for “tune-ups” and trying to “ruggedize” them somehow before the show opens.

Of course, part of this participatory idea is having a bulletin board, or even a string with clothespins, where typists can display their own work and ideas. Has your institution tried this type of interactive? If so, would you recommend it?

Photo credits: and

Pop-Up Museums


Organizer Michelle DelCarlo's simple pop-up museum instructions

You can produce a meaningful and interactive public program with little more than pencils, paper, and a few work tables.  The pop-up-museum concept can foster and nurture communities within your institution.  Read about a recent pop-up museum experiment in Seattle.  The theme was Thanksgiving and about 20 participants brought several artifacts, photographs, and documents to display for the program.  Each participant wrote labels for his/her contributing piece.

The Seattle event builds on a concept that established the year-long Denver Community Museum (2008).  Whereas the Denver pop-ups focused on participants’ artistic creations, the Seattle pop-up featured artifacts in participants’ possession.  Depending on the cultural heritage institution or the theme it assigns to a pop-up, either of these approaches (or even a mixture) could yield great community engagement rewards.

For a bigger event, try pairing the pop-up museum with one or more of the following activities:

  •  a wine and cheese “opening reception”
  • an information session on collections care
  • scanning or photographing the contributing pieces

One advantage to including a related activity is that it allows multiple levels of participation.  Audience members who do not want to bring in artifacts can still participate as visitors or spectators, rather than as exhibit creators.

Pop-Up Museums are the kind of content-creating opportunities for museum participants that Nina Simon has discussed extensively in her book, The Participatory Museum.  These programs can further institutional missions by increasing community engagement.  Best of all, the requirements for space and materials are minimal.  Why not try a pilot with a group of your organization’s volunteers and/or board members?  That experience can help your staff tweak their pop-up museum program designs before opening the event up to a broader audience.

Museums as Participatory Arenas

Those of us involved with cultural heritage collections understand that our institutional holdings constitute a public trust.  Consequently, we must not only preserve the collections but also ensure that they benefit the public in some way.  Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, design consultant, and blogger Nina Simon has written extensively on museum participatory experiences.  She contends that visitor participation fits naturally in a history museum, where visitors can often relate to the familiar objects on a personal level.  Also, because so many cultural heritage institutions are small and community-based, they have great capacities to create meaningful social opportunities amongst their constituents. (Read her discussions on and The trick is finding ways to allow visitor-driven content to infuse the public spaces of the museum.

Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh is one place where participants contribute content for exhibits.

 We are fortunate in North Carolina to have a history museum on the cutting edge of developing visitor participatory experiences.  The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte has won design awards and set a nationwide example with its use of talking circles to spark group discussion and engagement on challenging historical topics like race.  The difficulty for smaller museums in replicating this idea is providing the staff necessary (called “circle keepers” by another museum) to sustain the activity.  Still other participatory experiences at large museums involve expensive technology, such as touch screens, and filming equipment, and projectors.  Although activities involving additional staff and computerized exhibition elements may be beyond the reach of most of NC’s nearly 1,000 cultural heritage institutions, several fairly simple and inexpensive participatory ideas can help to forge stronger bonds between the collection and the communities it exists to serve.

 Here are a few ideas for low-cost participatory museum experiences that encourage visitors to relate to the collections in ways that are meaningful to them and generate social experiences with the collection as a focus:

 1. ballot box:  ask visitors to vote for their favorite artifacts.  Allow space on the ballot for them to explain why.  Create a chart to reflect responses after you’ve collected enough data and print some of the most colorful and/or representative comments in large type for others to read.  A social media program, like Facebook, can reinforce this museum experience.

 2.  photograph album with comment spaces:  this is a suggestion our Historic Sites colleague, Dusty Wescott, made recently to a small historical society.  By setting up an archival photograph storage album as an interactive in the gallery, museums can allow visitors to study the collection and “crowd source” to gather information about it.  Every other album page should be left empty to receive one or more pages of visitor comments (on acid-free paper, written in pencil, of course).  Visitors should be encouraged to add to the provenance of the image and/or simply interact with it by completing a statement like “this scene reminds me of…”  Have volunteers “seed” the album with comments to get the interactive going.

 3. roll imagining/ playing: assign each visitor an identity based on your site’s actual past inhabitants.  Have participants figure out where they would have slept, what type of food they would have eaten, etc. based on their status and demographics.  More organized visitor groups can even engage in roll playing exercises with their assigned identities.

 4. scavenger hunt:  a great idea, especially for groups including children.  This activity encourages visitors to look more closely at objects.  Reward those who complete the challenge with a pencil, postcard (related to your site, of course), or other item.

 What other participatory experiences have worked at your site?  Please share your ideas for low-cost interactive experiences!