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March 10, 2021

New Ways Museums Can Respond to the Challenges of Our Times

Science Museum of Virginia

Quatrefoil is coming up on two anniversaries. One — celebrating our 32nd year in business — arrives this fall. It’s an opportunity to express our great appreciation to clients (past and current) who have made our work both an honor and a source of pride. The second anniversary is one we are sharing with each of you — one year of coping with the COVID pandemic.

During the past year, we have all had both time and motivation to think about the role of museums, how they work, where the “museum experience” happens, and who our work is for. The last 365 days has been an opportunity for reflection, a time to consider what recovery looks like, and how we might emerge from the pandemic better than we went in, more equipped to serve the public good.

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In 365 days, we’ve seen angry debates about science, safety and truth in medicine, voting and government. As museums are one of the most trusted sources of factual information, their importance has never been clearer.

Over the last 365 days we’ve witnessed protests for social justice and civil rights in cities and towns across the county. As monuments are reassessed, we’re reminded of our commitments to our communities, and the promises of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) our industry still struggles to address.

The last 365 days have also featured evidence of our impact on climate and the environment. As California and Colorado burned; as a derecho swept through four states; as snow pummeled Texas, we were reminded that we have a significant role to play, not only in raising public awareness, but examining our own processes and methods of “producing” museum experiences.

In the course of 365 days we’ve seen formal education, attempting to teach outside their traditional, industrial-age classroom settings, adopt informal learning modes including many developed and championed by educators working in the museum field.

This last point is a reminder that the work museums traditionally harbor inside their buildings can play a critical role outside their walls. We believe this is also true in regards to our response to the climate crisis, our goals related to DEAI and our communities, and as the place to best engage people in the realities and wonders of the world we live in – the ultimate mission of museums.

Given where we find ourselves today, it was fitting that in September of 2019, six months before museums started shuttering their buildings, ICOM (the International Council of Museums) postponed a vote on the definition of “a museum” over their inability to come to an agreement. As we address our many challenges, and responsibilities it will mean rethinking the way we define museums, and particularly, how and where the “museum experience” happens.

Quatrefoil EXO

We are excited to announce the launch of Quatrefoil EXO, Quatrefoil’s new planning and design initiative, focused on activating the museum experience in the public sphere.

EXO expands the services of our interdisciplinary studio to embrace the real world as a museum itself and align our design approaches with the realities and complexities of public space. By integrating interactive, site-based forms of engagement into the built and natural environment, we help museums deepen their audience’s connection to the places around them, and encounters with treasures hidden among the everyday.

Connections to Community and New Audiences

EXO lays the groundwork for broadening a museum’s collaboration with its community. EXO can help open new pathways to address diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI), long-standing ethical goals that are sometimes made more challenging by the real or perceived barrier the brick and mortar edifice represents. By taking the museum experience outside the museum walls, it can also attract audiences that might not normally visit a museum.

EXO is Green

If LEED certification awards points for retrofitting construction projects into existing buildings, the idea of embedding the museum experience into existing environments reaches the next level of “low impact”. Rather than Design/Build, the EXO approach is better characterized as Design/Adapt. In an effort to protect our planet (a different way of thinking about “conserving the collection”) thinking “outside the building” is a smart, responsible choice.

We’ll be sharing more details about this exciting new initiative in the coming weeks and months at museum conferences and through our e-newsletter, social media platforms and website.

If youd like to set up a conversation with one of our firm principals to discuss EXO and how it can help your local history or science museum, heritage site, nature center or other cultural organization create places of relevance, meaning, understanding and reflection in the world at large, please contact Director of Marketing Mike Fetters at mfetters@quatrefoil.com.

Quatrefoil EXO is a new initiative of Quatrefoil Associates, developed in collaboration with the Omnimuseum Project, a non-profit 501(c)(3).

March 10, 2021