Outside Trumps Inside

Last night I watched Museums of Life, the first episode of a series about the Museum of Natural History in London. Over the last month or so I also vaguely followed the Month in a Museum and yesterday read some insightful commentary here and here (I’m sure there’s more too).

Like most when I first heard of the MoaM program I thought how amazingly cool it would be to stay in a museum for a month – a whole museum to yourself all night. Imagine! Similarly, when I saw there was a program about behind-the-scenes at the Museum of Natural History I thought that would be pretty cool too. Slight disappointment for both at the fact that it was all about science, but, I got over that (I’m not a science-y person).

MoaM was interesting. It was obviously a marketing success, Kate McGroarty was relentlessly upbeat and there was a LOT of press about the museum. The responses I linked to above both point out, however, that there wasn’t a lot of ‘science’ happening, that Kate may have been learning how cool science was, but that the program was set up for her to just report that – that those who followed, facebooked, watched and visited her didn’t get to learn how cool science was too. They only learnt that Kate learnt it was cool.

Museum of Life – a professionally produced program of the high standard we’d expect from the BBC – actually manages to do both these things. It takes the viewer on the journey of learning how cool the science is with a presenter who is also learning how cool it is. Which is really what tv does very well.

The thing that struck me as to why Museum of Life was so much more engaging and successful than MoaM was that while one program was stuck inside the museum, the other spent a lot of time outside it. Museums are places to collect things from outside (where they happen) so that people can come together and see/experience them where they are. Museums bring the fascinating things from the world to people. Yes, a lot of things happen in a museum  – this was the point of Museum of Life – but they start outside.

It struck me that by containing someone inside a museum, as cool as that may sound, really limited the message of the museum. Obviously museums are more than their exhibitions and buildings – we know that – but if one of the ‘problems’ of museums is that people think they are dead, dusty, static and boring and don’t know that they are more than their exhibitions and buildings, then holding someone hostage inside a museum is kinda a weird way to try and combat that.

I get that the museum’s message was that it is full of life, but I’d suggest that it isn’t. Exhibitions, no matter how interactive or engaging they are, are not alive. The life of the museum comes from the visitors who bring their interest, fascination, context, experience, existing knowledge; a museum without visitors is not really a museum.

Really, the fundamental problem museums are dealing with is that outside is life and inside is, well, things that were part of life but now are just representative of it. Much smarter minds than mine still grapple with this. But I’d like to suggest that perhaps it is worth comparing Museum of Life and MoaM because I think there is something interesting there.

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  1. […] I said that museums only come alive with visitors  and then that outside trumps inside I think I might have been contradicting myself. It also occurred to me that Kate McGroarty is a […]



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