What is Museum Disruption?

This post is the result of a conversation with Ethan Angelica from Museum Hack, who is a Tour Guide & also responsible for VIP Partnerships.

Ethan Angelica, Tour Guide at Museum Hack [HD] from Museum Hack on Vimeo.

My conversations with Ethan from Museum Hack led to a number of questions about how they are considered disruptors of the museum: What is real museum disruption? Where does it come from? When is it meaningful? Are outside organizations currently the best way to disrupt and transform museum practice? In the end, our conversations led to more questions than it did answers. I look forward to hearing the ideas of readers, and hope that this is a conversation that Ethan and Museum Hack, among others, are willing to continue to engage with.

A few months ago, I began a conversation with staff from Museum Hack. For those of you not familiar with Museum Hack, they (in their words) “lead renegade museum tours.” They’ve become a source of both excitement and anger in the museum world.

Conversations with Museum Hack’s Ethan Angelica led to the word “disruption.” What is a disruptor? Is there an entire field of these disruptors happening in our industry right now? If so, is it effective? Good? Bad? This conversation led to numerous conversations and interviews with potential disruptors (some conducted by Ethan), as well as a deeper dive into what we mean by disruption.

What is disruption?

Clayton M. Christensen, the author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” says that “disruptive innovation…. transforms a product that historically was so expensive and complicated that only a few people with a lot of money and a lot of skill had access to it. Disruptive innovation makes it so much more affordable and accessible that a much larger population have access to it.”

Arguably, museums have been experimenting with disruptive practices for years, through approaches to collections that reject traditional historical or art historical narratives. One prevalent form of disruption is through the inclusion of artists-in-residence. Current Metropolitan Museum of Art Artist-in-Residence Peter Hristoff puts it this way: “a ‘disruptor’ allows for interpretations of works of art that are intuitive, personal, imaginative — that may disregard, deny, contradict or PUSH FURTHER conventional art historical readings, allowing for a more personal reaction to art.”


Peter Hristoff

But there is another body of writing that argues that “disruptive innovation” is just a way to justify the exploitation of the work force, a movement that takes us from reasonably-well paid localism to large tech-savvy companies paying minimum wage.

Uber is an excellent example of this: It is undeniably disruptive, but is it creating new opportunities for job flexibility and distributed ownership, or is it displacing secure and steady jobs and replacing them with part-time, low-paid work? (See this article and this article for more on this perspective.)

In a blog post on “Innovation Management” Anthony Ferrier notes that we do not have a shared definition of disruptive innovation, and seems not to distinguish between disruptive innovation and innovation. If we just look at the word “innovation,” Elizabeth Merritt of the Center for the Future of Museums offers both a definition of true innovation and some proposals for innovative museum work.

Merritt says that true innovation must be relevant. She contrasts this to the silly but new – for example, the toilet paper hat. It much catch on – the moon landing was radically new, but did not (or has not yet) led to real change. It must be truly new and different –  Edison’s light bulb, she argues, was not an innovative product, because the first light bulb was invented in 1840. And, finally, it must be significant and important, and not just a tweak. The iPhone 3, Merritt tells us, was innovative; the iPhone 4 was just a tweak.

The one concern I have with this definition of innovation is that it insists that innovation happens in a single moment rather than over time. Innovation may feel this way, but it doesn’t usually happen this way. Science and invention are more collaborative than we give credit for. World-changing events like the light bulb are not generally the product of a single mind or moment. Rather, they are the tipping point in a continuum. They are the moment when the world notices and grabs hold of a change that has been in the works for a while.

This is even more evident when one looks at Merritt’s catalog of six museum innovations. One of them is MOCA TV, which she says is the first museum TV station. I trust Merritt that this is true. But PS1 had a radio station in the 1990s, and museums have been filming and posting videos on YouTube for a while now. MOCA has, arguably, taken a continuum of innovation and positioned it so that it is popular, and thus widely known. Similarly, Merritt credits the Museum of Old and New Art as innovative because it “banned signage from the building, and instead of exhibit labels it provides interpretation via an app called ‘the O'”. But the Noguchi Museum has long offered a space without physical labels, and myriad museums are offering interpretation via app.


The Noguchi Museum

Museum disruptors

So – what is disruption? Perhaps disruption is not a moment of invention, but the moment that a continuum of invention gets noticed.

There is a field of people who consider themselves disruptors. Along with Museum Hack, Bated Breath Theater Company, Chuck Lennox, longtime interpretive trainer with the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), and artist Peter Hristoff spoke of themselves as disruptors approaching museums and audiences from an outside perspective.

Chuck Lennox, longtime interpretive trainer with the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), said:

If done right, the outside perspective can challenge staff and docents to see things differently – get people excited – help to identify internal changemakers and people committed to interpretation and the visitor experience… The outsider does NOT change the culture – that can only happen with buy-in from management and a committed internal sponsor. But they can be the catalyst to get things rolling.


From the Musuem Hack blog, a tour in the Rodin gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But, like the inventors who worked on the light bulb before Edison, there are also museum staff who work more quietly toward change. Michael Christiano,  Interim Senior Director of Museum Programs at the Smart Museum in Chicago, believes that change is most effective when it comes not from an outside disruption, but an inside commitment to experimentation:

All museums are different. To presume that you require someone from the outside to come in and experiment in your space to inform you about how to better develop your programs is not accurate across the breadth of institutions…. We as an institution embrace experimentation in institutional practice – we are constantly experimenting with “program” writ large at the museum. That’s in our DNA. We often work in deep partnership with artists, educators, academics and other creative folks to cultivate the change we believe is essential to our shared practices, which can therefore be embedded in the Museum’s core work.

I could imagine in an institution attached to a more conservative way of working it might be easier to activate change if someone else comes in to do it. Sometimes it feels like “only someone who comes from 50 miles away from you can be an expert.” Sometimes intervention from an outside person is useful. But then how do you embed whatever form of change you are introducing? That’s the challenge I have with one-off interventions done by an outside person: what is the density of that type of work that has to happen before it effects change.

A lot of educators and curators are thinking deeply about how our practice as museums needs to shift to stay engaged with the publics we serve. There’s a bit of a sea change in that regard; we are trying to be thoughtful as to how we respond to shifting conditions of our context. This means you need to be willing to adjust how you do your work in a real way.


Smart Museum Interpreter in Residence Erika Dudley leading a training based on the article “Don’t be intimidated by museums. They belong to everyone,” from the Guardian.

These are two models of change. In one model change is more likely to come from without. This is particularly true in conservative institutions that for whatever reason (past success, tradition, a conservative mindset, a mistrust of innovative staff) are tied to the status quo.  In the other, change is not a moment, but a way of approaching the world: There are always new challenges, and it is always worth experimenting with how to address them in new ways.

I leave this exploration with two thoughts:

  1. Outside disruptors are not necessarily inventing new approaches, but they are making them visible – to audiences as well as museum staff – in ways that are important.
  2. Many institutions are resistant to change, and this is problematic, and worth examining. How do museums – institutions often committed to preserving and exhibiting what is old – better embrace, and even shape, the new?

What are your thoughts? Who are disruptors in our field, and what is the impact of their work?

One thought on “What is Museum Disruption?

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Rebecca. I’m also interested in the discussion of differences between aiming for innovation from the inside or doing it by bringing in someone from the outside. I’ve seen both models work in my own experience, and shared some thoughts on this topic in my CODE | WORDS exchange with John Gordy earlier this year (https://medium.com/a-series-of-epistolary-romances/museum-as-platform-e89e815903fb#.hx7eqbhj0).

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