Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Great Museum Cloning Adventure

27th April 2014

26th April 2014:  To the ‘Chaos at the Museum’ conference at Central St Martin’s where, amongst many ideas and much sociability, there emerges over lunch the idea of the Museum with many clones. The thinking goes like this – that digital technologies mean that every museum can be replicated a thousand times in digital form across the web, and that whilst many of these clones will be poorly made and unimaginative, there will be some (a few?) that will be beautiful, imaginative and more than a match, in their own way, for the real thing.

But stranger than this is the fact that none of these clones, nor their content, will be under the control of the original museum. Which gives us the dizzying prospect that we may get digital clones of the Natural History Museum that take the same artifacts and present them as evidence for creationism.  Or we may get a version of the Imperial War Museum where the artifacts are taken as evidence for the German point of view?

‘It’s going to be the Wild West,’ as someone at the conference observes with gloomy relish.  ‘How are we going to know the truth about anything?’

To all of which the objectors will reply, ‘But there have always been paper museums – because that’s exactly what a catalogue is, a museum in the form of a book – so what’s the difference now?’

And it is true that in (for instance) 1791 the Dutch brothers John and Andrew van Rymsdyk published a book that they called ‘the Museum Britannicum or a display in thirty two plates, of antiquities and natural curiosities in that noble and magnificent cabinet the British Museum . . . ‘   And then went on to list what they saw in the real museum, including ‘A brick from the Tower of Babel;  a very curious Coral, modeled by nature in the form of a Hand or a Glove; and the Flagello, an unlawful instrument used in the Irish massacre of King Charles I’s time, although far be it from me to advance anything that is untrue . . . ‘  (I love that qualification.)

But the difference now is that whereas in 1791 a book might take several months to cross the Atlantic a virtual museum now can spin round the world in thirty seconds and acquire an audience of millions, each of whom could visit the real museum with a different version of the content buzzing in their heads . . .  Thus raising the question, So who owns the Museum’s content now?

Hence the enormous and transformative power of the web.

With thanks to:

‘Chaos at the Museum’, Central St Martins, 25th and 26th April (

Dave Patten of the Science Museum (@davepatten)

and Elaine Heumann Gurian ( who collectively set this train of thought in motion . . .

(The image is from the Children’s Museum of Memphis Blog)