The great museum unbundling

June 12, 2016
Thinking about the museum as a bundle of connected services, and what disconnecting them might mean.

OLD-ISH CONTENT WARNING: You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

The following was written in late 2015 as the introduction to the second volume of Luis Marcelo Mendes’ Reprogram books. I’ve tried to link to available versions of the essays referenced here, but I recommend you seek the book out–it’s great!

“Often, a key characteristic of large incumbents in any industry is, they have a bundle that is accumulated over time, for…reasons that made total sense at the time. So, we…basically say, “Well, you know, gee, if you were to sit down today with a clean sheet of paper, and you knew that the technology was changing, then what would be the proper form of the product, if you were starting from scratch?”

–Marc Andreessen

Welcome to the second volume of Reprogram! In the pages that follow, you will find essays on technology, innovation, and culture in museums by the brightest thinkers inside and outside the museum sector. You will not find a better summation of Where Museums Are At Now than this one. Whether it be Michael Edson radically re-defining what museum audiences could/should be, Merete Sanderhoff describing how sharing and openness facilitates better community interactions, or Robert Stein discussing new models for visitor engagement, these essays all help to address this one fundamental question: what is the ideal and proper form of the museum in the early 21st Century? That is to say, if museums didn’t already exist and we were to start today with a clean sheet of paper, as Andreessen suggests above, what forms would the services provided by museums take? How much would those forms resemble activities we associate with museums today?

Bundling and unbundling

Andreessen’s Netscape co-founder Jim Barksdale has been quoted many times as saying , “There’s only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is to unbundle.” What Barksdale means is that one can think of any product (say, a newspaper) as a single “bundle” of services. Newspapers made money in the 20th Century by bundling more and more services into this single bundle: investigative journalism, sports reporting, classified ads, op-eds, TV schedules, advertising, etc. So when one looks at the direction newspapers have taken in the last ten years, this is fundamentally a process of “unbundling”: pulling apart those services and having them be handled separately and often more efficiently as discrete entities. So now instead of going to your local newspaper for classified listings, you go to Craigslist. Instead of going to your local newspaper for sports scores, you go to espn.com. Instead of doing the crossword in your paper, you subscribe to the NYTimes daily crossword app on your tablet. None of the activities of The Newspaper have necessarily gone away, but the form of The Newspaper as a single bundle has less and less meaning as the days wear on.

This is what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, in The Innovator’s Solution , refers as the movement from interdependent architecture to modular architecture. As Christensen describes it, organizations working in what he calls a “not-good-enough world” derive significant tactical advantages from interdependent, vertically-aligned architecture. In the early days of computing, the companies with integrated hardware, software, and peripherals came out on top because performance could be improved across the entire machine. Once computers became ubiquitous, consumers’ demand for better performance flipped to a desire for lower cost and increased flexibility.

The museum bundle

When I read the essays contained in this book, I find it hard not to think that what we are witnessing are the beginnings of a massive unbundling of the museum. If we think of the museum as being, fundamentally, in the information delivery business (though I recognize that some might argue with me on that), then it’s not hard to map this onto our sector. The single, interdependent bundle of The Museum evolved during a time when people’s needs for information were consistently not met. In this context, museums created tactical advantages by adding additional services and making them interdependent with other museum operations. The most efficient way to produce educational programming, for instance, was to create an education department in the museum that would work interoperably with other departments. But we no longer live in an information-scarce world, and our patrons are increasingly willing to trade authority and reliability for increased responsiveness and speed. And so we begin the gradual move towards modularization that Christensen describes and which the essays in this book detail.

This movement, this unbundling, has already begun. I think back to 2009, when the Brooklyn Museum encouraged outside developers to make mobile apps for them using freely-available collections data. Instead of owning app development from end-to-end, Brooklyn published their collections data with an API , and outside developers created an interface to it. This is the kind of response to market demands that the old, vertically-integrated museum simply couldn’t handle. It’s a short leap from there to the Walters Museum’s Art Bytes hackathon described by Mike Murawski in his essay “The Moon Belongs to Everyone ” or the in-house media labs detailed in Desi Gonzales’ “Museum Making ” project.

More than just technology

But we shouldn’t think of this unbundling just from a technology standpoint. As Merete Sanderhoff says, sharing is caring . Modularization enables more than a simple optimization of capacity; it means that we can be more emotionally responsive as well. Bridget McKenzie, in her essay, emphasizes the need for museums to provide conditions for what she calls “affective germination ,” in which visitors are encouraged to make more meaningful emotional and logical connections to places, things, and ideas. And yet many of the best manifestations of this idea, from the “Joint Statement From Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson & Related Events ” to the Oakland Museum of California’s working with “Community Advisory Task Forces” to create exhibitions , are only partially contained within museums’ physical walls. Another new bundle.

And that new bundle? It may not last for a century. It may not even last two years. The demands will keep changing, but at least a modular architecture will mean that we don’t necessarily have to change everything in order to change one thing. As Merete says, we have no idea what habits we will adopt in the future. But I do know that adapting to that future will probably not involve making a grand, sweeping change to the current museum bundle. It will involve creating a new bundle, with DRM-free assets, museum educators, and third-party software developers.

So is this reprogramming actually a great unbundling? I think so. I also think this unbundling is helping us to find the “proper form” of the museum in the 21st Century. To me, that form looks more and more like an organization at the center of a whole ecosystem of activities, some of which might be coordinated directly by that museum, some of which might be bundled back into the museum itself, and some of which might merely take advantage of museum resources without ever interacting with the museum directly at all. As you read and think about the nature of “Reprogramming,” think about how the component parts of that reprogramming described in the pages that follow describe exactly this new paradigm. Welcome to the Great Museum Unbundling.