The Digital Museum

Meet Me at the BarCamp


Museum professionals love conferences. It seems like every month there are a handful of acronym-heavy conferences to attend: AAM, ASTC, ACM, MCN, etc. These gatherings, like most conferences in the world, typically share some of the following attributes:

  • A schedule of keynote speeches and panels are released a head of time.
  • Limited question time after the speeches.
  • They’re expensive.
  • Attendance tends to be limited to industry professionals.
  • Who speaks at the conference is chosen by a small group of organizers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-conference. I attended last year’s Web Wise conference in D.C., and found it entertaining, informative, and worthwhile. However, I think some new options should be considered.

Museum conferences have embraced some new ideas in recent years. With conference back channels that encourage dialogue before, during, and after the event, live feeds of panel discussions so that those unable to attend can still reap some benefit, and inviting speakers not directly involved in the museum world to diversify perspectives: the museum conference experience has been enhanced. But, I say we go one step further.

Let’s have a museum unconference, or BarCamp as it is better known.

BarCamp started as a reaction to Tim O’Reilly’s annual invitation-only, participant-driven conference: Foo Camp. BarCamp’s aim was to be the opposite of an exclusive, expensive, somewhat elitist conference. They accomplish this in the following ways:

  • If you attend, you participate. Give a talk about something you’re working on, donate food or time, get a discussion started, etc.
  • The schedule for the conference is decided the day of. There is a white board for participants to sign up.
  • The organization of the event is entirely public, conducted through a wiki.
  • There is a BarCamp backchannel to keep the conversation going.
  • It’s free.
  • You don’t have to be a member of any group or organization, no invite necessary.

Since 2005, BarCamps and related unconferences have been held in over 350 cities around the world. Participants have given talks on any number of topics, including “Storm Chasing with Social Media” at BarCamp Charleston, “Death of Advertising” at BarCamp Austin 4, and “Presentation Kung Fu” at BarCamp Nashville. Essentially anything goes.

While BarCamps’ have traditionally been technology community focused and driven, I think that they could serve the needs of the museum community just as well. Can you just imagine the line-up of sessions at a Museum BarCamp…

  • 10:30 Participation Orientation, BarCamp-Style by Nina Simon
  • 11:00 Why the Smithsonian Is Better Than You and How You Can Change That by Michael Edson
  • 11:00 Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Museum Studies Class with A Museum Studies Grad Student
  • 12:00 Getting Social with Beth Kanter
  • 12:00 Constituent Relationship Management – Yep, You Could Use Some Help with Blackbaud
  • 1:00 Using Open Source Tools to Make Your Museum More Effective on the Web with Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress
  • 1:00 Why I Chose to Adopt a Polar Bear with a Zoo Supporter
  • 2:00 Exhibit Design from a Non-Museum Employee Perspective with A Local User-Interface Designer
  • 2:00 Your Gala, Why It’s More Than Just Getting Butts in the Seats with an Event Planner
  • 3:00 Managing Millenials in Museums by An Entry-Level Employee
  • 3:00 10 Museums Not to Miss on Your Next Round The World Trip with Your Friendly Neighborhood Travel Agent
  • 3:00 What The Museum Doesn’t Show You with An Archivist
  • 4:00 We May Be Dead, But We’re Still Twitter Rockstars with @NatHistoryWhale and @SUETheTRex
  • 4:00 Ask A Curator Q&A Session

Of course, these sessions are all fictional, but they do show you all of the topics we could cover and all of the new perspectives we could embrace.

So, if your interest is piqued, let’s get the discussion going. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

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This Week in History

Scenes from Museums Past


I’ve been learning a lot about the great history of Charleston, South Carolina, lately, and have been delighted by its colorful characters, extraordinary events, and generally rich culture. However, being the museum nerd that I am, I was pleasantly surprised to see the contributions Charleston has made in the development of American museums.

Most significantly, the Holy City is home to the first museum built in the United States. The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and still stands proud along the city’s Museum Mile. However, it is the story of Joel Roberts Poinsett and the little known National Institute for the Promotion of Science that we’ll be exploring here today.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, proud son of the South, was a man who wore many hats. Below are just a few of the accomplishments of Poinsett’s life:

  • Fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German.
  • Educated in medicine, the law, and military science.
  • Became the first ambassador to Mexico in 1825.
  • Served as Secretary of War from 1837 – 41.
  • Was both a South Carolina State Legislator and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • During his time in Mexico and South America, he was charged with exploring the potential of various revolutionary groups and even acted as an advocate for Greek independence.
  • On a trip to the Middle East in the early 1800s, he was shown some petroleum, which he believed could have a future as a fuel.
  • An avid botanist, Poinsett, during his time in Mexico, came across a winter plant that had been popular as far back as the Aztecs. Sending samples back to the U.S., the plant, which would become known as the poinsettia, has remained a holiday favorite ever since.

In spite of all of these noteworthy accomplishments, it is Poinsett’s role as co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science that should be of particular interest to museum lovers.

In 1838, the United States successfully secured their right to a bequest from the British chemist and naturalist, James Smithson. The money was to be given “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” With money in hand, Congress began the debate about the creation of a national museum.

Poinsett – a botanist, as we have already noted – was a strong advocate for a national museum. During his tenure as Secretary of War, he had naturalists accompany soldiers on exploratory expeditions. He believed that a museum would be the perfect venue for accumulated specimens, and an opportunity to showcase that America, though young, was fast on its way to becoming Europe’s cultural equal. Having put his ideas before Congress, Poinsett went about trying to find a way to secure the Smithson bequest to make his museum dream a reality.

In 1840, he co-founded the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. This organization was the force behind the collection of specimens and items on display at the Patent Office Building in D.C. The collection lacked appropriate funding and was perhaps a bit disorganized, but it put the idea of the “Nation’s Attic” into the minds of politicians and the public alike.

Eventually, the National Institute for the Promotion of Science failed to secure the funds of the Smithson bequest. However, by setting the precedent for a national museum, Poinsett’s group was the predecessor to the Smithsonian Institution as we know it today.