Cornershop Culturals: outside our walls and into theirs


Call it a “trend,” but it’s really just the right thing to do.

Many organizations and agencies in the public eye– including some embedded deep in historical constructs and often perceived as inaccessible, archaic, even corrupt–   are striving to demystify their work and become more transparent.

The Seattle Police Department recently sent 12 hours of emergency calls to their followers over Twitter, showcasing “a day in the life of the Seattle Police.” The department was experimenting with new ways to engage with the public and be more open about the role they play in their community.

Similarly, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom announced earlier this year that San Francisco residents can now send messages to their city government about anything from for street cleaning and potholes to garbage can maintenance via Twitter.

My favorite example of this is a very non-social media approach.

The Winnipeg Free Press (Canada) opened a café/annex where 3 staff members (journalists and editors) work, giving the public direct access to newspaper staff. Not only does the café offer locally sourced, organic food, it encourages community engagement and dialogue– including special events like book readings, live music, and a place to watch election results come in in real-time. Reporter Lindsey Wiebe says “it’s about turning the organization outwards.”

There are a lot of cool things you can say about the Winnipeg Free Press News Café: it’s visible, accessible, unexpected, transparent, and a window into something even regular newspaper readers don’t get to see. (And, of course, it’s all of that plus a place to grab lunch and a cup of coffee. This multi-purpose functionality, similar to the recent post about laundry, makes it a part of and not separate from daily life.)

What could a public annex look like for your museum?

Would you co-brand it to match your cultural… or would it be totally different?

Similar to a pop-up or a mobile museum, this extends our thinking beyond the constraints of set physical space and positions us instead as part of larger landscapes and broader community. But this is very different than a pop-up or a mobile museum. It’s not an exhibition. It’s about the staff, the organization, the work we do.

Who would work there? You marketing team? Program staff? A wikipedian-in-residence? Your director? (Maybe not preservation or curatorial staff… but maybe! I’m totally volunteering if my museum does this, by the way.)

What else would you offer? Participatory facets– like voting on current news stories to be addressed at your science center, or what person in local history has most influenced your town? Would there be games, a bookstore, music, events… or just a quiet cup of coffee?

Don’t have the cash for a coffee shop in your city center? What about sub-letting or squatting in existing spaces? You could try a local elementary school, or a booth at a community event, a fair, or a festival. Or maybe you join with other local cultural institutions and alternate months. Less committed? One day a month you could have a member of staff working out of local coffee houses; sort of rotating mobile office. Advertise it on Facebook and Twitter.

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) has “Month at the Museum” (first Kate, now Kevin)– an incredible experience exposing a non-museum person (and, by extension, the whole world) to an all-access, behind-the-scenes look at MSI… but what if you turned that inside-out?

What might some time outside the museum do for those of us who are so regularly bound within one?


Thanks to Springwise (yet again!) for inspiration this week.


9 Responses to “Cornershop Culturals: outside our walls and into theirs”

  1. Joe E. Heimlich

    As always, Kate, you spark ideas and sometimes make us face the obvious. I would like to offer the opposite perspective as well: how can the museum INTEGRATE the community in unique ways?

    The Portals to the Public programs certainly challenged a lot of science centers about bringing non-museum scientists into the museum. COSI, where I am based as part of the Ohio State/COSI/ILI partnerships, led by Chief Strategy Officer Kimberlee Kiehl is undertaking major efforts to integrate the community into the museum and engaging visitors with other institutions during their visit.

    The bottom line for me is the need for museums to make the walls between the physical place of the museum and the community (at all scales) more fluid. Many types of museums need a ‘heart’ that is based in a place. Some museums are concepts and can reside in multiple locations or even virtually. Either way and with the host of potential hybrid models in between, what resonates for me from what you are saying is the need to remove barriers. In many cases, yes, that is being in the community in all sorts of ways (is the museum represented on the Boards of the corporations who sit on the Museum’s board, for example?). And in all cases, how is the community embracing and including the community in authentic and radically interesting ways? Key words: authentic and including. But inside the walls not just outside.

    Could that be the next blog?

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Joe– I couldn’t agree more. Absolutely, these integrations, connections, and partnerships shouldn’t just happen on the outside; they should happen inside museums and culturals too (and, as a nod to Lynda’s great comment below, in the digital and mobile realms as well). As you said, at the museum’s “heart” and in ways that are fluid, authentic, and including.

      One thing I wanted to make clear in my post this week, wherever connections to the “outside world” happen, is that transparency and accessibility to the institution and its staff–not just it’s holdings/collections/objects/stuff– matters. It’s about removing *those* barriers– ones we rarely think of, even in the most innovative and exciting programs I’ve seen. I love your example of board members reciprocating. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about. (Same goes for activie participation in community advisory groups, staff voluneering in the community, etc.)

      It makes me remember how exciting it was at the American Evaluation Association ( conference last week when you were on a panel with Caroline Payson (from Cooper-Hewitt/National Design Museum) and Helene Jennings (ICF Macro). The multi-faceted and incredible things that Cooper-Hewitt’s education programs are doing nationwide to become embedded in and throughout communities in truly impactful, local needs-based, community-relevant ways is phenomenal. Those programs aren’t about getting people to visit their lone building in NYC. (In fact, it’s logical to think that with their national program slate that many won’t.) But the programming is aligned with their institutional mission in ways that run parallel to and compliment what happens at the museum. They’re exposing their mission and values and matching it to community needs. That’s their museum’s “heart” and it exists in many realms– physical, virtual, and emotional. Inspiring stuff.

  2. Marley Steele-Inama

    Kate, your theme gets me thinking about museums whose content doesn’t connect with certain audiences (e.g. “that isn’t MY people’s art”), or people who do not connect with zoos and aquariums because they are against animals in captivity. I think what it boils down to is a lack of understanding (doesn’t it all?), and you are absolutely right – we can’t expect the “non-believers” to walk into our doors so that they can then begin to understand what we are really all about (our missions, visions, goals, and objectives). And of course, taking our museums and zoos on the road is one step (in the traditionaly sense of “outreach”), but again, we tend to be at events or community events in which we are interacting with the “believers,” and we don’t have an opportunity to engage with non-visitors as much at these community events.

    Some of my most facinating conversations with people about our zoo (esp. the “non-believers”) have been when I have been wearing my badge out in the community and someone says, “Oh, you work at the zoo?” Check-out lines in the grocery store, with a bartender and realizing I should have probably taken my badge off when I ordered that beer, and on the bus. Even if we can’t afford to have office hours in a coffee shop here and there (and what a fabulous idea that is!), I think out staff could be trained to think of themselves as constantly fulfilling the role of advocate for their organization – to always be on call to talk about, as you say, “the staff, the organization, and the work we do.”

    Keep the good stuff coming!

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Marley– your points are really great. I agree; it’s the least assuming times when someone spots my accidentally-still-on museum badge and the conversation is sparked. So what if we made it more overt? How many conversations, revelations, and connections might that lead to? Let me know how it goes the next time you put a sign on your table that says, “I work for theZoo” when you’re reading or typing away at the local coffee shop. Maybe I’ll make you a shirt!

  3. Laureen

    This reminds me of Lucy’s Psychiatric Help: The Doctor is IN booth in Peanuts. Not in that we all need a little mental help (well, maybe we do), rather in that people have questions about what we (museums and museum staff; I know my own family doesn’t even quite understand what I do!) do and who we are – they need help understanding our mind and we need help understanding their minds. We need to be able to meet them and talk and debate and question and wrangle with the notion of why museums exist and their value and importance to individuals, communities, and society. A coffee shop does sound more inviting than a booth – but maybe a booth – just on a street in the middle of a neighborhood is where we start. Step right up!

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      I love (love, love, LOVE) your comment, Laureen. I especially love the open invitation to debate, question and wrangle the notion of why museums exist. And, of course, I love the Lucy/Peanuts reference. (PS: Your boss is lucky to have you. She should buy you a drink for posting this, even if it *was* unsolicited!)

  4. Lynda Kelly

    Thnx for this post Kate. Yet more food for thought.
    My feeling (similarly to Joe) is that we need to bring more of that style of interaction within the physical walls of our institutions. I remember vividly a front-end evaluation we were doing for a biodiversity exhibition and asking for suggestions about how to deal with the big issues of biodiversity loss and climate change. One visitor said something like ‘just put a great big round dining table in the middle and encourage people to talk’!
    There are some other really great examples of engaging citizens – two that spring to mind are various initiatives in UK government, such as Fix My Street: Another wonderful case study is the Queensland Police Service’s use of social media during the 2011 January floods crisis, particularly Facebook. You can find links to some good blog posts and presentations about their experiences from this webpage:—The-use-of-social-technology.aspx
    I guess one of the points is that we don’t always need the physicality of a space to interact. A Director’s blog, a #museummascot that tweets is an (often) more sustainable way to have these discussions.

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Lynda– thanks so much for the fantastic references and links. So useful to dig into this thinking even deeper!

      Your comment made me think of a recent serendipitous happening at my home museum (

      Nearing the completion of The Snowmastadon Project(, our crew of palentologists brought back a mammoth fossil cast simply too gigantic (read: 8 feet wide, 15 feet long, and 3 feet deep) to house in any of our labs. So what did the Museum do? We moved a few things around on the Museum’s main floor, put up some temporary railings, cut open the burlap and plaster fossil jacket, and got to work.

      Born out of necessity and urgency, Museum scientists have been removed from their typical behind-the-scenes spaces and are creating a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors.

      Of course, museums opening up science and collections spaces to the public isn’t particularly new or unique. What I love about the DMNS story above is it’s happenstancery. (Yes, that’s a word. My word!) It wasn’t planned. It was the only viable option. And because of that it just happened. It wasn’t expensive. It wasn’t prototyped. It wasn’t (gasp!) evaluated. It was museum innovation at its most raw. And it’s really cool. It’s been that “great big round dining table in the middle,” encouraging people to talk. Hopefully it’s also been a step towards that sort of access and transparency within our museum on a more regular, more purposedul basis.


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