The Museum of Concepts: How do you display ideas?

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional

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Traditionally, museums have been founded on collections of specific objects, events, people, or cultures. Whatever topic you’re interested in, chances are there’s a museum about it somewhere in the world – from the history of pencils to parasites.

But in recent times, increasing numbers of museums are focusing on ideas rather than things. How do you make a museum about a concept? How do you collect and display ideas?

We looked at three case studies of concept museums in North America and Europe to find out.

Where Love Goes to Die

Museum of Broken Relationships, Los Angeles. Credit: JoVe DX via Flickr.

Museum of Broken Relationships

Which object represents a break up? It can be just about anything.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is unique in both concept and structure. It’s a global crowd-sourced project with two permanent location in Zagreb and Los Angeles, displaying personal objects and stories donated by people who have experienced a break up – from broken watches to feather quilts.

The museum also has ongoing travelling exhibitions which not help engage more audiences, but also act as a vehicle for collecting more objects and stories. They encourage online donations to their Digital Separations Collection – such as photos, e-mails, and social media posts – to create a shared ‘emotional history’.  

Many of the museum’s objects appear mundane or even unpleasant at first – you might even come across a road rash scab! But the success of the Museum of Broken Relationships shows that it’s the story, not the scab which makes a museum experience truly compelling.

A Museum Is a Place

Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp. Credit: Ashleigh Hibbins

Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)

When it comes to Antwerp’s MAS, the clue is definitely not in the name – it simply means ‘Museum by the River’ in Dutch.  But don’t let this simple title fool you.

Each level of MAS’s unique building explores a broad conceptual theme using objects, artworks, and multimedia across all eras and cultures – such as power, life & death, trade, and much more. But the exhibits don’t feel disjointed or random. Through accessible interpretation and interactivity, they encourage visitors to be curious and connect each theme to their own experiences. They also have the freedom be really innovative in their exhibits, such as putting part of their collections storage on display.  The museum prides itself on being “a place where you look at the world, at Antwerp and yourself”. MAS defies most traditional definitions of a museum, anywhere where we can learn about canoes, Kawaii, and cannibalism in the same place is pretty awesome.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg. Credit: Robert Linsdell via Flickr.

Canadian Museum of Human Rights

Concept museums are often world firsts, and this one is no exception – it’s the first museum dedicated to the history and future of global human rights. The museum features 10 permanent galleries organised mainly by big ideas such as Breaking the Silence and Rights Today, as well as temporary exhibitions exploring human rights figures and stories from around the world.

By focusing on human rights in general rather than a specific event or place, visitors can explore different cultural perspectives on rights, and how they have been shaped over time. The museum also displays evidence from times when human rights were violated on a massive scale, such as the Holocaust and the Armenian and Rwandan Genocides. The result is a museum that empowers visitors to stand up for the rights of themselves and others, whoever and wherever they are.

Challenges and Opportunities

One of the challenges of being a museum of concepts rather than things is visitor buy-in. It can take more effort to get some people through the doors because ideas don’t always have the special interest groups that museums of people, places, and things can draw upon. Not focusing on a specific time period or event can make it difficult to attract school audiences too, who are looking for the most straightforward way to meet their curriculum requirements.

But while concept museums might have to work a bit harder to connect with some visitors, they also have some distinct advantages. They can collect and display a much broader range of objects, and easily insert themselves into current events, trends, and debates. Not representing a specific organisation or person also means they can also take greater creative risks in interpretation and programming. It’s no coincidence that concept museums are usually at the cutting-edge of museum sector.

What we’ve learned from our three case studies is there’s only one limit to how you display concepts in a museum: your imagination.

Do you know of an awesome “ideas” museum? Share it with us in the comments!

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