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21 ways how I would create an amazing museum


I have been to a LOT of museums. Some have been massive, and have loads of money, like the Natural History Museum (that's where the first picture is from). Others have been tiny, like the D'Arcy Thompson museum in Dundee. I once even went to a museum that was two rooms in a man's house. All of them have been cool in their own way. I even wrote about two very different museums in London earlier this year, and why I preferred the much smaller one, although both were brilliant.

So if I could make my own museum, and control everything, what would I do ? These are the 21 ways I would make my museum absolutely fantastic for everyone, especially kids.

1. Museums should be free and open to everyone.

I wrote before about Sir Richard Owen who was probably not the nicest person in the world but he did have good ideas about the Natural History Museum. Before he came along, seeing something in the British Museum took three separate trips and an interview. He decided museums should be open to everyone, and even opened in the evenings so those who worked during the day could come. He was right. Most public museums in the UK are free. They should always be free. 

(ADDED 19 October 2013: Some people think Sir Richard Owen wasn't such a bad person, and that people forget what a brilliant scientist he was. This is a good article which is a bit nicer about him.)

2. Museums should be properly funded

Some of the bigger public museums in the UK are funded directly by the government. Some other ones are funded by councils. When there isn't enough money to go around, museum funding sometimes gets cut more than others. This page says that by 2016, some national museums will see their funding cut by almost 30%.  It's also great to volunteer in museums, but I would much rather people got paid properly for their knowledge and time and skills. No-one expects MPs to work for free.

When museums have less money, they can employ fewer people, open less hours, and sometimes even close whole buildings. That sucks. A prime minister should be ashamed if that happened.

I would like museums to be given money to do their jobs properly, then that figure should change each year by the same percentage as some other factor. Maybe get it to change at the same rate that MPs salaries change: that has gone up by 35% in the last ten years !

3. Museums should have a great building

The Natural History Museum, the Kelvingrove Museum and the Paris bone museum all have amazing buildings, built in Victorian times when people wanted to show how important science was to society. The Natural History Museum is more like a palace than a museum. The Ulster Museum, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Grant Museum, the D'Arcy Thomson Museum and the Huntarian Museum don't look too great from the outside but look really great inside.

If you look close enough, the Natural History Museum even has scenes from nature carved in the stonework all around it. Someone took a lot of time and money and attention to detail when they built this.

4. Don't have a vagina as the very first thing you see


Kids like gross stuff, but at least wait until we get inside.

5. It should have a bit of a wow factor inside

Everyone who goes to the National Museum of Scotland remembers the animal gallery. Everyone who goes to the bone museum in Paris remembers how the galleries look. Everyone who goes to Kelvingrove remembers the stags fighting or the Spitfire. These museum curators have spent a load of time thinking about what makes kids go wow, so well done. I would too with my museum.

One of the best for the wow factor though was "Treasures of the Earth" which isn't as scientific as the others but is still pretty cool:

6. Make it as hands-on as possible

Kids grow up with things like bleach and medicines locked away because they are dangerous and children shouldn't touch them. If you lock skulls and bones away, kids think that those will be dangerous and shouldn't be touched as well. But skulls are meant to be touched and felt with the hands.

The problem is that if you have every available to touch, some will get broken, like this cheetah skull at the Grant Museum:

The Natural History Museum in London had a barbary lion skull to touch, but it was a 3d printed one, not the real one. It felt pretty good, just like it had been varnished. The Ulster Museum in Belfast had a tiger skull out for touching too, but they wired the jaws shut. But let kids touch as much as possible, and get close to the exhibits.

7. Don't hide the experts

You wouldn't know it from visiting most of them, but museums have tons of people who work behind the scenes who are experts on all sorts of things, like Paolo at the Horniman Museum. They do loads of stuff preserving, cataloging and examining the museum exhibits but you never get to see them, although the Natural History Museum in London does put signs up by the doors which lead to their areas.

My idea is this. Have in the middle of the museum desks and workstations that one or two different museum curators can come and work at each week, so they bring their work out where everyone can see it. People can ask them questions. Then kids can understand that there are more cool jobs in museums than just being in the gift shop or being on security.

8. Link exhibits to things in the real world

Bones and skeletons and animals aren't things that only exist in museums. You can find a lot of them for yourself if you spend enough time outside. So if you find bones interesting, you can go an explore and find your own. If you find animals or birds interesting, you can go to the woods or an RSPB reserve with binoculars. So being interested in the exhibits isn't something that should stop when you leave the museum.

Perth Museum and Art Gallery is very good for showing where the stuffed animals came from. On the osprey display they have a sign showing where each one was from, and a live camera feed to an osprey nest and details of the reserve where the ospreys live. This is a great idea. The Scottish seabird centre have live cameras to the live birds, and they have photos showing what the live animal looks like next to the skeleton, like this puffin:

This display at Perth Art Gallery and Museum shows some animals that it is easy to see in Scotland (like squirrels and roe deer) with others that are harder to see (like badgers and capercaillie and crossbills) so it helps kids to think what other species they might see if they look hard enough:

If I had a museum it would give tips on where and how to see animals in the wild as well.

9. Label everything well

This is a squirrel skeleton but you wouldn't have learned about it from the Kelvingrove museum because they had forgotten to put a label on it. The McManus museum in Dundee does the same by putting skulls near the cafe then not telling you what they are. I can usually tell but not everyone can.

10. Have information for all levels of knowledge

This is probably a bad example because you shouldn't complain if you go to a French museum and the writing is in French, and most French kids can understand our English signs just fine. But it's good to have information for all levels of people on each exhibit, but it's difficult to do. The Grant Museum uses iPads on some exhibits which fits in a load of information. That must be expensive but it was a great idea.

I haven't got a picture of the iPads at the Grant Museum but I have a photo of this touchscreen and my brother looking at the most expensive book in the world on it at the Natural History Museum.

Not everyone understands at the same level, so it's great to have the choice of information on exhibits as to whether you are a beginner or an expert.

11. Link related objects through the museum

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh used to have all the big cats together in a big case. Now they mix them up, so you have three animals that never meet in real life, like a tiger, a kangaroo and a deer (is that a chital ?), all on the same display. Which is great, but if you really like big cats, or deer, you have no idea where the other ones are. Maybe have something that says: "if you like this, then go find this one" as well.

The thing about museums is that no-one is ever interested in everything. Who cares about vases ? Not me. But if you get someone interested in one thing, and they want to go home and learn more about that thing, then that's a win.

Oh, and don't worry about kids getting lost. We're not stupid, we'll find our parents when we want fed.

12. Have links for when you go home

Museum learning shouldn't stop when you leave the museum. Why not have an easy way to go to museum web pages with more information ? The Natural History Museum used these QR codes but only in the shop. Why not put them on exhibits too ?

13. Let schools have classes there

Sometimes schools seem to ignore museums. My village has fantastic Roman history, and I studied it at primary school, but no-one ever said that museums in Glasgow and Stirling had great exhibits that were 2,000 years old and which were discovered 200 yards from my old school !

The Grant museum had a load of tables and chairs in the middle, and when I was in with Ben Garrod there was a class came in. I don't know what they were studying but you could be studying quadratic equations in Hungarian and it'd still be a fascinating room to have it in.

14. Put exhibits online, and use social media

The best websites for skull collectors are Skullsite.co.uk and Skullsite.com, but they aren't even run by museums. I can't believe that all the museums in the Uk with all their amazing collections have put things together in the same way online.

One of the best blogs for bone collectors - Zygoma - is written by an expert (Paolo Viscardi, the consultant editor on my book), but he does it in his spare time, but it's got loads of people interested in thinking about bones, science and museums.

I know social media isn't as important as other jobs in the museum, but it was sad that when I asked Kelvingrove Museum whether they really meant to say redwings on this sign (I'm not sure, maybe they did) that they didn't reply.

15. Make museums very child friendly

If museums are good for 2 or 3 or 4 year olds, then parents will want to bring them back when they are older when they can really appreciate things. I started going to museums when I was very young and now I have been to loads.

Perth Museum and Art Gallery is small but one of the best for children. It has whole areas where my brothers can play with toy dinosaurs, dress up as wildlife, do skeleton jigsaws, wear roman armour and old clothing, and look at stuff under a microscope.

16. Find great ways of explaining things.

A lot of science seems to be saying cool things in a complicated way. The Natural History Museum was good at explaining complicated things in a cool way, like how the ozone layer protects the planet like a pair of sunglasses protects our eyes.

This display was good at showing how the elements and nutrients inside a living animal go back into the earth after death, although they wussed out showing proper decomposition !

17. Make visitors ask questions about the world

How much should we spend on protecting endangered species ? Why should we save some and not others ? Could the £2m spent on protecting beavers be better spent ? Why is swimming with wild dolphins wrong ? Are tourists at the Great Barrier Reef actually damaging it ? These are very difficult questions that scientists worry about, but the Grant Museum is the only one I have been to which asks visitors the same questions.

18. Find cool ways of putting stuff on display

Too much cool stuff in museums sits in boxes. They sometimes have warehouses of stuff that people hardly see (like the Horniman stores). Find cool ways to put it on display, like how the Grant museum put these slides up. You never know what people find interesting.

19. Encourage photographs

This got me really angry in Skye last year. If you don't want flash photography, ban flashes. If you don't want tripods, ban tripods. But don't ban cameras. It's a way of learning and sharing, and science is about learning and sharing.

20. Museums are less important than nature itself

Nothing in the museum should have threatened the existence of animals in the wild. No animal should have died or have been harmed to create an exhibit. The sign in the Natural History Museum says that it doesn't collect rare animal skins for exhibits any more, so the ones already on stuffed animals may have faded. Well done them. Live animals are more important than dead ones. Perth Museum and Art Gallery says the same too, even about squirrels and animals considered pests:

21. Sell my book in the gift shop.

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE. What separates a good museum from a GREAT museum ? It's how many copies of my book it has on sale. If on the 3rd February next year (or 4th March in the US) the shelves of your local museum aren't full of my amazing forthcoming book "Jake's Bones" (or here's the UK link), then complain to your MP. 

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Paolo Viscardi said...

This is BRILLIANT! Great to hear what you think about museums Jake - we're always keen to learn how we can make things better!

HenstridgeSJ said...

Great ideas, but I can't see Paolo working at a desk in the open surrounded by hoards of screaming kids ;-)

scrutables said...

Great article, Jake! If you are ever in San Francisco, be sure to come to the Exploratorium- not very many bones, but I still think you'd be into it.

Linda Allan said...

Well done Jake, this is excellent. Thank you for being so complimentary about Perth Museum, it's good to know what we are doing well. As for selling your book (excellent PR by the way, I am very proud) you know we will be only too happy to help you with that. Just get in touch. Take care, Linda :-)

xray said...

Excellent post! You are an exceptional young man and i look forward to following you as you pursue your career of choice. Had me cracking up at #4!!! lol ( my husband and I were eating dinner and he spit out his food a little) Priceless! :)

Pox said...

Your museum would be awesome! These are all really great ideas.
Have you ever been to Los Angeles and the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits? They have something called the Fishbowl Lab where they work on fossils from the pits so that all the visitors can see. Sadly when I was there no one was working but it was cool to be able to see the lab anyway.

Jake said...

Thanks ! The trip behind the scenes at the Horniman gave me some ideas too !

Jake said...

I can ! It's a brilliant idea !

Jake said...

Thanks !

Jake said...

Ha ! Thanks !

Jake said...

Sounds like a great idea ! I've not been to the USA yet.

Jake said...

Thanks for the tip !

Paula Millet said...

Wow, I am and exhibit designer, born in the late pleistocene, and I am so psyched by what you have to say. Plus, I also love bones.

Melanie Hollis said...

Jake, this is awesome. I work at Ipswich Museum and it's my job to get kids and families interested and excited about history and science. Let us know if you are ever visiting the area and want a tour!

melissaofdunedin said...

But, but, surely talking to the kids _is_ work! And anyway, they'll scream less (or maybe more, but in a good way) if they're learning cool stuff from someone who's excited about it.

melissaofdunedin said...

I really like what you have to say here!

But I have to admit I don't think the photo you chose for the "no photography" point was the best example. The sign says that place was someone's own house. I think a bloke should be allowed to feel a bit shy in his own house.

Keep up the good work :-)

Catherine said...

Fantastic post Jake! I can't believe I haven't come across your blog before now, but will definitely be back! Nice to see you like the smaller museums as well as big ones. Have you been to the fossil museum at the Square and Compass in Dorset? It's one of my favourites http://www.squareandcompasspub.co.uk/index.php/fossil-museum and the pub does a great pasty too! (I don't work there or anything, just trying to support small, local places!)

Jeffrey Peyton said...

thank you for your prompt reply to my post really appreciate it. will send my discussion to you--can I email it?

Jake said...

Sure, I'm on jakesbones@gmail.com

Jeffrey Peyton said...

will send by tomorrow. thank you

Stef said...

Jake this made me laugh so much especially No. 4 - so true!
Seriously though, I agree with all the points, whenever I'm in the Kelvingrove I get annoyed at the lack of information on the exhibits or that they somehow thought 'less is more' after the renovation. I personally like old Victorian style museums where its crammed with all sorts of exhibits that require you to come back again and again to see what you missed the first time.

Perth museum and Art Gallery is great, I like to pop in when I'm in town visiting my mum (and put the beaver costume on :P).

Jake said...

Thanks !

Jake said...

Thanks for the tip ! I think sometimes the smaller museums are the better ones, eg the Grant Museum in London or the D'Arcy Thompson one in Dundee.

Jake said...

Sorry, I can't see the link even when I'm logged in as my dad because it's a private discussion.

Jeffrey Peyton said...

Hi Jake. I started a discussion some time ago on Linked-In, and I am wondering what you think about this--I think it deserves to be put on your list of 21. Thanks. http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=1141767&type=member&item=125705388&qid=6a582108-810f-4b6a-82a9-0f8ee513d5f0&trk=groups_search_item_list-0-b-ttl

Paula Millet said...

Yes, and I am hoping for a mammoth cake to hold all the candles.

Jake said...

Pleistocene ? Are you looking forward to your 12,000th birthday ? :-)

Jake said...

Thanks !

Jake said...

There were LOADS of places that did it in Skye and that was the first photo I found. It was an ENORMOUS family house that parts were open to the public and fully touristy. It wasn't like a small one-bedroomed semi-detached house or something.

lone said...

I like your ideas - especially about Experts being in the public room - that should be much more common -

Deidre said...

I'm not sure an eleven year old boy like yourself should be using the word 'vagina'.

Jake said...

It's the right word to use if you're talking about vaginas, and I was. And in about 270 posts I've only ever used it once.

bob said...

I'd love to hear what you think _is_ an appropriate word!

Thalictri said...

Better that he says "Vagina" than that he's horribly mystified about why some animals have inny-bits and some have outy-bits.

Jeffrey Peyton said...

Jake, hope you can find a minute to respond. I'd really appreciate hearing from someone as young and aware as you on the subject of play.



based on papers I was invited to present by the OECD in Copenhagen, 2004.

Helen Bleck @ JGC said...

A very enjoyable and inspiring blog Jake - just the thing for first thing on a Monday morning :-) Looks as though you visit lots of Scottish museums, so if you ever fancy a trip to Haddington, pop in and visit us at the John Gray Centre, we'd love to hear what you think and talk about some of your ideas!

Eugene Bakker said...

This is excellent!
I think more museum should look like your museum............I would definitely come to visit!

Eugene Bakker
Westfries Museum
The Netherlands

Juanita Carroll Young said...

let a vagina be the first thing you see" is so right. Also--Free to the
public, AND properly-funded (by the government)....yes!

Danielle Penny Lane said...

Awesome post! I'm a huge fan of museums, in fact I'm currently studying at university here in New Zealand to become a collections manager and hopefully work in museums in the UK and throughout the world. I really enjoyed your comments and agrees very much with a lot of them. Glad to have stumbled across your blog and can't wait to read more! Nice job.

Jake said...

Cool ! Thanks !

Jake said...

After I wrote this I heard that there are a lot of private museums which don't rely on government money, but I still think museums should try to be free.

Jake said...

Thanks !

Jake said...

Thanks, I'll try to !

Kate said...

What a fantastic take on museums! If you get the chance to come to the States, though it is a big decesion on where you'd like go and what what you'd like to see, I'd recommend visiting Chicago. The Field Museum has developted something a lot like your idea in number seven called the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution. Any time I've visited I've seen a variety of individuals working within the lab on a range of projects. And as a (unemployed) museum educator, I heartily agree on your feelings of having the support of the government to keep museums strong.

Jake said...

Thanks for the tip ! And hope you get back into work soon !

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