How Museums Are Breaking the Glass

Museums have evolved in the last thirty years, what they’ve done helps illuminate the future path of publishing and other media.

Photo by Chris Nguyen on Unsplash

Growing up in a family that valued education, we went to a lot of museums. Living in the Chicago suburbs, my absolute favorite was the coal mine experience at the Museum of Science & Industry. You didn’t just learn about coal mines, you literally experienced it beginning with a ride down into the mine on what was an actual coal mine elevator. Not every museum was fortunate enough to have a spare set of mining equipment, or woke up to discover some college kids dropped off one of the world’s largest Van de Graff generators in the middle of the night. Most museums had basic exhibits and if you were lucky there was maybe a little animatronics, or something lit up when you pushed a button.

That was fine in the twentieth century. Back then the only place to see what a dinosaur looked like, other than a drawing in a book, was at a museum. Today Hollywood CGI, VR, and other technologies makes them far more real than any exhibit back then did. If it’s information you seek, the internet has far more content, and is more up to date, than any museum could hope to be. Twentieth century museums are becoming obsolete.

Unlike the many relics in them, however, museums are not going quietly into the display case. They adapted far beyond the linear experience of people looking at displays and reading plaques. Modern museums offer many other attractions such as:

  • Summer camps and hands-on learn programs
  • Lecture series, even whole conferences
  • Performances and reenactments (and yes, laser light shows, too)
  • Hunts and other puzzles
  • Sleepovers (and not just for kids)
  • Events (from conference dinners to bar mitzvahs)
  • Incubators and projects ranging from art to engineering
  • Maker events, hackathons, and other intensive participatory activities
  • Adaptive content (at MoMath for example, the user can select their level of math knowledge and read a description appropriate for that level of knowledge)
  • Interactive displays and exhibits–please do touch
  • VR and AR to deepen the visceral experience
  • Pre- and post-visit activities (often online) to engage the visitor for longer

Museums have been around for centuries. For the most of that time the experience was simply to look at the exhibits. It’s only been in the last few decades that museums broke out of that narrow mentality of what a museum is and how people should engage with its content. The mission of a museum isn’t to let people look at things, but to educate. Looking at displays is just one of many possible ways to do so. While it may have been the most scalable and cost-effective option given the technologies of the past thousand years, that’s no longer the case.

The museum’s philosophical sibling, the library, has had the same awakening. It’s not just about providing access to books. Internet access, classes and training, lectures, after school programs, maker fairs, even libraries with 3D printers, are all becoming more common. Libraries, too, are there to educate, and books are just one of many tools for doing that.

Publishers and authors (or podcasters or other people focused on a specific channel) cannot remain stuck in the past. Like museums and libraries, they must view their mission as one of education and/or entertainment, not simply writing and printing. Books (and their kin such as audiobooks and videos) are a tool, not the goal of the industry. The NY Public Library’s mission is to “inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” The word “book” is never mentioned.

Museums and libraries are undergoing a transformation in the twentieth century, moving from static content to dynamic, interactive experiences around education and growth. Publishing should be no different, but currently lags behind. To remain relevant publishing and authors must adapt and move beyond the page.