May 3, 2024 / News & Blog

From Constraints to Opportunities: Redefining Museum Experience Through a Small Museum Lens

By: Stephen Wisniewski

Recognizing the depth and usefulness of a small museum approach, and centering it in our field, can allow us to see much more expansive possibilities by thinking and practicing from the bottom up, rather than seeing compromise and limitation from the top down.

When I joined the FFACES project as a small museum advisor, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I understood the basic contours and goals of the project—to adapt a traveling exhibit series that had previously visited mostly very large, well-resourced institutions so it could be permanently installed in smaller children’s museums and underserved areas—but it also seemed like I was entering an entirely different world.

Like many of us in small museums, I had never considered hosting a traveling exhibit. As the sole member of our exhibits team, I occasionally saw promotional materials or received email offers for them. However, the rental fees were often triple our annual budget. Additionally, the reality of our facilities made it clear that traveling exhibits were not designed to be accessible to us in the first place—with no loading dock, small doorways, and limited exhibit and storage space, most traveling exhibits were both financially and logistically impossible.

Moreover, I doubted whether the large exhibits I encountered would align with our audience and mission.

Conversations with colleagues from larger institutions revealed stark differences in our perspectives and terminologies. We lacked shared understandings of terms like “immersion” and “consumables,” highlighting the communication gap between our worlds. It became evident that adapting large exhibits for small museums required more than just scaling them down. This project offered an opportunity to completely reimagine the design and fabrication process, placing small museums at its core.

I believe that this reframing is part of a larger conversation that should be happening across the field; one that encourages us to think critically about resources, practices, and about what and who we value, both in terms of institutions and audience. Most importantly, this reframing recognizes small museums as not simply a limited version of a larger museum, but as fully formed, sophisticated, innovative institutions that can serve as models for any museum.

So what does it mean to think from a small museum perspective? It’s tempting to answer this question with a clear set of practical guidelines, since from the outside, it might seem that much of what defines a small museum is resource or facility limitations.

How do you accommodate weird, repurposed spaces?

Limited electrical outlets?

No tech support or regular maintenance?

In fact, designing to a set of “rules” for small museums is perhaps not even useful, because the diversity of small museums is so wildly broad—it’s difficult to apply standardized design principles to a 1,000 square-foot strip mall storefront and also a barely renovated Victorian house. Rather, it is far more useful to holistically reframe our thinking about exhibits and operations to be expansive and from the ground-up, using broadly inclusive principles and resource-conscious creativity. 

One common small museum consideration that seems to consistently surprise larger museum colleagues is that most small children’s museums don’t have the staff resources to facilitate activities, or even restage them regularly. On a busy day, most exhibits on my museum’s floor might not have any staff attention for hours, or even until after closing. This represents one of the most illuminating examples of something that might seem like a practical limitation, but actually reveals a core strength of small museums, which is the embrace of a truly self-guided, discovery-based approach. Small museums by necessity need to provide experiences that work for a wide range of ages, that are intuitive with minimal instructions and signage, can work without being reset or maintained for long periods of time, and can maintain engagement with repeat visitors over multiple visits and many years. That’s not just difficult, that’s almost magical. And we’re able to do that magic because we are small, not in spite of it.

Designing for low/no technology, no facilitation, and low maintenance is not a constraint or a compromise, but an opportunity for museums of any size. Choosing materials that can safely remain on an exhibit floor without daily laundering benefits both those who do—and don’t—have an on-site washing machine. Consciously using exhibit pieces that have the lowest possible replacement rate and cost benefits the staff at any museum. Recognizing that “special exhibit fees” make our institutions exclusionary benefits all visitors. A small museum perspective is accessibility in practice.

Advocating for the importance of a small museum perspective, and not just for consideration of small museums per se, is important beyond a single phase of this project. And that perspective can ultimately give us more inclusive models for building experiences and building relationships to the communities we serve.

5 Key Takeaways:

Reframing Perspectives:
Recognize the depth and usefulness of a small museum approach by reframing perspectives from the bottom up, rather than seeing compromise and limitation from the top down. This shift allows for more expansive possibilities in thinking and practicing within the field.
Adapting to Challenges:

Small museums often face unique challenges such as limited resources, space constraints, and minimal staff support. However, these challenges can be opportunities for creativity and innovation in designing exhibits and operations.
Embracing Self-Guided Exploration:

Small museums excel in providing self-guided, discovery-based experiences due to limited staff resources. This approach fosters engagement across a wide range of ages and encourages intuitive exploration with minimal instructions or facilitation.

Opportunities for Accessibility:
Designing for low/no technology, minimal facilitation, and low maintenance isn’t a constraint but an opportunity for museums of any size. Prioritizing materials with low replacement rates and inclusive pricing structures promotes accessibility for all visitors.

Advocating for Inclusivity:
Advocating for the importance of a small museum perspective extends beyond individual institutions. It promotes more inclusive models for building experiences and relationships with the communities served, benefiting the broader museum field.

About the Contributor:
Stephen Wisniewski has worked with and in small children’s museums for 20+ years primarily designing and building exhibits. He is currently an independent consultant specializing in small museum operations, exhibit design, and content. Stephen has a PhD in American Culture with expertise in Museum Studies and Cultural Studies, as well as an extensive background in visual art, DIY design and building projects, and independent art and education spaces—but mostly likes to make cool things for kids to play with.

This blog post is the first in a series of small museum perspectives that emerged from the ACM Freeman Foundation Asian Culture Exhibits Series (FFACES). Introduced as a traveling exhibit model, FFACES has been effective, with a total of twelve impactful exhibits created for two national tours. Each tour reached 3.4 million people—or 6.8 million visitors—total.The latest new round of the FFACES features modular exhibits about East Asian cultures for museums, which can be used in galleries and in outreach events. These new exhibits have a smaller footprint (500–1,000 square feet), and museums can rearrange them to fit in smaller or larger spaces. By remaining at the museum and in the community, the modular exhibit’s content becomes a part of children’s long-term memories, and can create a deeper experience than the temporary attraction of a traveling exhibit.