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Nov. 22, 2012

Imagining the Omnimuseum

Think of all the history, culture and science at play when you walk down a city street, shovel snow, shop for clothes or cook a meal. Occasions for informal learning are everywhere, in everything. The simplest object or event can be the link to myriad subjects, stories and interactions. In an atmosphere of expanding interconnectivity, we are seeing museum efforts increasingly move beyond the walls of the institution, (science camps, archeological digs, hack-fests, nature treks, etc.). We have every reason to believe this trend will continue. But how might museums participate on an even deeper level, offering informal learning opportunities everywhere, integrated into everyday experience? Imagine a truly interactive, ubiquitous “presence”, able to engage us in the historical, cultural or scientific wonder of whatever happens to be in front of us? Imagine the Omnimuseum; a museum of everything.

The truth is, something akin to the Omnimuseum is already taking form, albeit with little forethought or shared purpose, (see The World Is Already On Exhibit”). In its current trajectory, it may have more in common with a cabinet of curiosities. But to imagine a true omnimuseum as a pervasive informal learning environment, folded into the world around us, we must think of it as a holistic agglomeration of interrelated elements.

 

Prototyping the Omnimuseum

Testing and evaluation in museums have been invaluable for developing more effective museum experiences. To cultivate something as all encompassing as the Omnimuseum, we will benefit from a research facility made up of everyday occurrences, a “community as laboratory” where a comprehensive mix of experiments, prototypes and programs can be conducted and evaluated.

I recently ran across plans for something called CITE, (Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation). CITE is a for-profit endeavor by Pegasus Global, a private international technology development firm. When it is built, CITE will be the largest testing and evaluation center in the world, a full scale, typical American town that would accommodate roughly thirty five thousand people. 

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Diagram for the Center for Innovation Testing and Evaluation

It will have high rises, suburban neighborhoods, rural residences, farms and ranches, an interstate, urban and rural road system and ubiquitous wireless and fixed-line communications and infrastructure. The only thing missing will be its residents. No people will actually live there.

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Backbone networks operations concept for CITE

This real-life science enrichment center will create hundreds of jobs, testing technologies such as smart transportation (like driverless cars), smart grid technologies, telecommunications, and resource development, things that are expensive if not difficult, or even legally challenging to test and evaluate in populated environments.

Of course, people are central to the very concept of informal learning. So, imagine that a facility like CITE actually did have a population. People that live, work and play as they do in any typical town. Such a microcosm of everyday experience could be ideal for researching and developing the ubiquitous networks of the Omnimuseum.

Intentional Communities

This may bare some resemblance to “intentional communities” (sometimes called themed communities) and in particular, Disney’s original vision for EPCOT. Between 1962 and1966 Walt Disney and his staff worked on “The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” We know EPCOT as a theme park and resort, but Disney’s original dream was to create a model community with a population of twenty thousand residents, functioning as a test bed for city planners and organizers

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The original EPCOT, courtesy of the Disney Company

Walt Disney said, "It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities.” What eventually became of this vision is Celebration Florida, a diluted, somewhat saccharine version that shows little resemblance to Disney’s grand vision.

While the original EPCOT was dubbed experimental, its theme was utopian. The same could be said of other intentional communities like The Farm, Zegg, and Yarrow Ecovillage. Unlike many intentional communities, the point of the Omnimuseum, as a ubiquitous informal learning “system”, is less about lifestyle and more about opportunity and insight. In addition the Omnimuseum would be in no way be utopian. In fact, it can be argued that learning and utopian notions (if utopia is synonymous with “perfection”) can be antithetical to one another. Yet, one would hope that ways of mining the value of mistakes, accidents and failure would be accounted for and built upon from the beginning (see "Break This Exhibit"). Disney’s notion of a “controlled city”, was modeled on innovation, but may not have been the best atmosphere for encouraging innovation itself.

Ecomuseums

Another notable set of models are provided by the ecomuseum movement where daily life is framed by museographic structure. Developed by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine in the early 1970’s, the ecomuseum’s core concept centers around the inhabitants of a designated region taking responsibility for interpreting, valorizing and conserving their own cultural and territorial heritage. There are approximately 300 operating ecomuseums around the world, two thirds of which are in Europe.

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Ecomusee d'Alsace, Ecomusee de la Communaute Le Creusot-Montceau, Ekomusem Bergslagen -Google Earth

Compare this with the American Land Museum, a network of landscape exhibition sites being developed across the U.S. by the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The trajectory of this project aims to turn the entire country into a museum. In their words CLUI is “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.

In both the American Land Museum and ecomuseums, the landscape, what occupies it, and its history is embraced as a collection of specimens, artifacts and performances in situ. Similarly, the Omnimuseum would operate almost entirely in situ, but would not be aimed at curated or preserved sites, objects or events. Ideally the Omnimuseum would be adaptable and personalized, a ubiquitous, tapestry of networks for informal learning, available everywhere, regarding everything.

That said, it would be important to accommodate “input free periods” when the Omnimuseum deliberately leaves us to ourselves without support or interpretation. True understanding and personal growth depends on a healthy amount of experiential “porosity”, only possible when there are pedagogical voids. Such voids would likely appear in examples given above, but they are byproducts of where attention has been placed rather than being intentionally placed themselves. Like the way silence operates in musical compositions, intentionally placed voids would be part of the Omnimuseum’s enrichment strategy.

Most of the projects touched on here offer examples of daily life entwined with intentional learning and enrichment. They all suggest something larger than themselves, and although some occupy a great deal of space, they exist in microcosmic form making it possible to research and develop the most effective means of serving their mission.

Welcome to the CORE

 

While the ultimate goal is to imagine the Omnimuseum, it will initially be more practical to focus on envisioning its prototype, a fictional facility we will call the CORE, (Center for Omnimuseum Research and Evaluation). In order to provide an experimental context worthy of supporting prototypes for the "museum of everything" the CORE will encompass urban, suburban and rural settings, nestled among a spectrum of geographical and environmental features offering a broad pallet of “daily life”. The CORE will be home to a population of average citizens that could easily include those living around you now. 

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Center for Omnimuseum Research and Evaluation (composite image source: Google Earth)

After this article was written The Omnimuseum Project was launched in early February 2013. The project's website, omnimuseum.org will feature the work of contributors delving into strategies, technologies, programs and related efforts that address the concept of the Omnimuseum. These contributions will begin to define a range of ideas, approaches and perspectives that will give form to the Center for Omnimuseum Research and Evaluation (pictured above) and lay the groundwork for imaging the Omnimuseum.

 

Interested in joining the effort? Let us know if you would like to participate by signing up here .

 

Or check out the progress at Omnimuseum.org

 

MWB


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