MOD. Lesson #2: How to be a museum

Posted 2 Aug

MOD. at UniSA

“Why on earth would you call yourselves a museum?”

We’ve had this question. In fact we’ve had it multiple times.

We call ourselves MOD. We also often talk about ourselves as a museum of discovery. Our goal is to become Australia’s leading future-focused museum, provoking new ideas at the intersection of art, science and innovation. You’ll notice though that when we mention the word museum, we always use a little ‘m’.

We love museums and all that they stand for; by calling ourselves a museum we are borrowing from a long tradition of public place-making around experiences that challenge, inform and inspire.

But more than just borrow, we hope we are adding to the canon as a new type of museum, one that probably won’t be like one you know.

What is a museum anyway?

When I started out at MOD. I thought I knew (at least loosely) what a museum was. A public place, a place to be curious, a place to explore our material culture and objects.

As someone from a non-museum background, I’ve now found out that museums themselves tend to be a bit more specific.

The International Council of Museums defines a museum as

“a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

This definition is also used by Museums Australia whose policy is currently under review.

The Museums Association similarly describes museums as

“institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society”

I’m challenged when I read both of these as I don’t think either definition is really us.

Firstly, MOD. is focused on future possibilities and so the ‘heritage of the past’ was never going to work. And, if you are not collecting the past you also don’t need to acquire, research or conserve the past (it will probably come as no surprise that we also plan to do none of these things).

We are also not permanent beyond the fact that we will be housed, primarily, in a real and permanent building on North Terrace in Adelaide. Our exhibitions will be changing and our experience always dynamic.

We also won’t hold a collection of physical objects. The things we have on display will be really just temporary tools that act as provocations for ideas and new ways of thinking. These ideas are what are really valuable to us.

But can a space with no interest in the past or preserving a collection still call itself a museum?

(hint: we think we can)

MOD. It’s not what you know

Our first exhibition, MOD.IFY, will carry the tag ‘It’s not what you know’. This has become a bit of a catch-cry for us — we are determined to be unexpected. But we are not the only ones disrupting what it means to be a museum.

In recent years the idea of museums as spaces that collect and preserve the past has been increasingly challenged. Museums are emerging as digital experiences (for example, Google Arts and Culture lets you experience collections from around the world from your desktop), being created through user-generated content (like my favorite — the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb) or are tearing down the walls that used to surround them. The debate over what makes a museum among museum people remains a heated one as traditional ideas are disrupted and challenged.

So where have we landed with all of this?

MOD. will be future-focused. In doing so we are not interested in preserving the technology that got us here either, rather we want to offer visitors the types of immersive experiences that challenge them to think about what their future could look like. We are not alone in this endeavor, with the new Museum of the Future planned to open in Dubai six months after us.

We will have a collection, of sorts. We will have a small number of robots and other technologies which we will hold to enable access to both young people and researchers. We will collect other things too as part of our exhibitions and will show the collections of others. We will also collect ideas as both datasets and contributions to the space — what we do with these ideas will evolve as MOD. does. However, when we do ‘collect’, our aim will be to have things for a good time rather than a long time.

The reason for MOD. being remains aligned to what museums have always been about. We are committed to making our public spaces accessible and inclusive, to encouraging exploration and discovery, and to exhibiting the ‘tangible and intangible’ and welcoming everyone who wants to play within our walls.

We think that makes us a museum, at least with a little ‘m’.

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Not convinced? Excited by what we are trying to do? We’d love to hear your thoughts below. For more info, visit our website.

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