The Watch Us Move! Exhibit: Coos History Museum’s First Foray into the Meta-Museum Movement

By Michelle Nash

I was very pleased to present this poster at the recent Western Museums Association 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, and am further pleased for the opportunity to share it here as well. The following blog post is not so much a summary of the poster (which can be accessed below), but rather a call to further the Meta-Museum Movement.

So first thing’s first: what is the “Meta-Museum Movement”? It’s the information revolution that we as museum professionals have all been participating in over the last few decades but haven’t given a name. More specifically, it’s the umbrella term I use to define all the initiatives that aim to discuss museology (or our work) as part of an exhibit or public program. Examples include the “fishbowl” labs and exhibits first pioneered in natural history museums, “behind-the-scenes” events and tours, and, more recently, “hacker” spaces, also sometime called “community” or “maker” spaces in which museum visitors are invited to create art in the museum space, propose their own labels for existing exhibit pieces, etc. A somewhat famous Meta-Museum example here in the Western states is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is an entire institution dedicated to questioning everything we know or think we know about museums and their role(s).

Most, if not all of us are familiar with this movement and I propose we give it a name. I think this one works well as the term “meta” is fairly commonly used to mean something that is self-referential (as in meta-data). It is therefore concise and has the bonus of being alliterative. I am more than happy to concede to an alternate term should one be proposed, but regardless, I think we should recognize this revolution by choosing to call it something.

The exhibit the poster below is based on was my institution, the Coos Historical & Maritime Museum’s first attempt at a Meta-Museum project. Stemming from a need for workspace during a collections inventory and the desire to educate our community about our upcoming move to a new facility, we decided to put ourselves on exhibit. During the summer of 2014, our curatorial staff and interns worked in the exhibit space on an inventory of our textile collection. We invited our visitors to observe, ask questions and generally talk to us about the move. As this was our first attempt at being Meta, I thought it fit well with the WMA 2014 Annual Meeting theme, “Expect the Unexpected.” I therefore decided to present the poster below on our experience and offer our insights for smaller community museums that want to undertake Meta-Museum projects.

Download a PDF of the poster here.

I had a lot of fun and learned quite a bit doing the WMA 2014 Poster Session (and spearheading the exhibit it’s based on), and I hope this is only the beginning. I have always been a big fan of the Meta-Museum Movement, and for several months I’ve been thinking that it would be great to have some sort of forum dedicated to it - a place to exchange ideas for projects, post pictures, talk about what works and what doesn’t and get a wider gauge of visitor responses. It was recently suggested to me that a Facebook group might be the best option for such a forum. I think it’s a good place to start so I went ahead and created one. If you would like to join, use the link here. I look forward to us all discussing the Meta-Museum Movement together!

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post and check out my poster. I’ve also attached a version of the handout I created for the poster session with tips for museums that are thinking of trying a Meta-Museum project for the first time. My contact info is on that handout as well as listed below:

Michelle Nash
Assistant Collections Manager
Coos History Museum

Michelle is a relatively recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with an MA in Public History and a certificate in Museum Studies. She has worked for the last year at the Coos History Museum in North Bend, Oregon. She loves the variety museum work offers and during the course of her studies was lucky enough to work, volunteer or intern at nine different institutions in five different states (Wisconsin, California, North Carolina, Alaska and Oregon) as well as abroad (London). She is pleased to be currently settled longer-term where she can undertake more in-depth projects.





I like the term you have coined and hope it catches on! A next step in the movement could be the compilation of data about visitor responses and interactions with these types of spaces and interpretive strategies. And where this type of evaluation does not yet exist, encourage further research.

Thanks for keeping this conversation going Michelle!

nice article

I had great interest in such historical places or musuems, where i could see tremendous collections of history. Like the post and enjoyed my reading a lot. Thanks for sharing it here with us. :D

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Just want to see if you are a robot.