CultureLab update

In February the museum will open CultureLab. I’ve written about it before, when it was just an idea – that post showed a rough floor plan, and reproduced our planning document – a document based on the ideas and interests of museum staff, and also the input of students in my Museums and Communities collecting and collections course, and the very imaginative ideas of Brian Kernaghan’s RISD course on museum design.

SInce then, it’s become a set of plans (the good work of Mark Foster and Erin Wells at Erin Wells Design) , then a collection of furnishings. Now it has activities, its first groupings of artifacts, and an opening date. Such is progress in the museum world!

While the basic idea remains unchanged from that first document, implementation in museums is the art of the possible. It would be wonderful to have the space to do all the things staff and others have suggested. We’re working in a space about 15 feet by 30 feet, though, and we’re trying to do a lot. Here’s where we are now, and a sense of how we have focused the project.

1. We’ve taken the “lab” part of CultureLab very seriously. That shows in the furnishings; we purchased (expensive) lab tables and desks, in addition to museum storage equipment. That has worked well; CultureLab looks like a very serious place. More like what a museum storage should look like than what it usually does!

2. We’ve played with the lines between storage and exhibit in interesting ways. Early on, we had imagined the space being mostly museum storage cabinets – we wanted lots of artifacts available. But museum storage units are very large, and deep; you can’t really see what’s in them, and visual display’s important. So we’ve combined storage and display, putting traditional museum shelves inside our elegant exhibition cases. These shelves-in-cases units form the outside of the CultureLab (one side for now, the other when an existing exhibit comes down in April), and serve as good advertisements for the space as well as dividers. i like the look: it’s museum storage on display – exactly the message we wanted to send!

3. We want the space to host small seminars. This is pushing it, but a class of up to 10 could fit. We’ll try this with a class on material culture this spring. I much like the idea of teaching about objects surrounded by objects, with the opportunity to pull an object from a drawer and discuss it.

4. We’ve selected objects for the space based on  courses coming up in the spring semester, four so far. One is about the materiality of money – perfect for our collections. There’s a course on Two Billion Cars – we’ve got a few cars, made by kids in Africa, to add to that number. A course on ancient Mexico and Central America plays to our mesoamerican collections strengths. And a course on the representations of  Native Americans in museums is a natural. We’ve also picked some objects that seem ideal for hands-on activities.

5. We’ve tried to make it inviting – the introductory label is more fun than most of what we do.

Next installment: some of the exercises we’re planning. We’re also looking to draft a set of rules for students working in the CultureLab space. Any suggestions?

Museums always claim that artifacts are good for teaching. We’ll have a place, and plenty of time to test that out.

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3 Comments

  1. Jo-Ann Conklin

    This looks great. I’m excited to see the finished product. Congrats!, Jo-Ann

  2. The open storage is the best part of Historic Deerfield. Can’t wait to see this.

    Rules? No-food or drink, no bags, wash hands before entering or gloves, pencils – not pens, put one away before you take another out, explore the on-line info before you look at the real thing.

    Rules are good because they make people think they are in a special place – and a very few rules should never be broken – no food or drink, be professional – be respectful of the items – be careful – but the other ones are more guidelines – maybe you need two things out for comparison sake, maybe the gloves are awkward, maybe there is no safe place to put their bags etc. The beauty of small places and great staff is that you can adapt the rules as you go.

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