Little Libraries and Little Museums, Revisited


Two years ago, I blogged about mini-parks and Little Free Libraries, and what these miniature versions of parks and libraries might imply for the possibility of miniature version of museums.

Little Free Library in Virginia

Little Free Library in Virginia

Since then, I have discovered that there are many Little Free Libraries in my area, and with the help of this handy map, I have set out to find them. If I’m going to a store or restaurant or museum with an LFL a few minutes’ walk away, I’ll take the time to go find and photograph it. They are just as cute in real life as in the photos. It’s equally interesting to open the tiny door and see what eclectic set of books is available.

Little Free Library in DC

Little Free Library in DC

Recently, I walked a few blocks from my apartment to an LFL, photographed it, and walked another few blocks in a different direction to the nearest branch of DC’s public library system, where I checked out a book. Why didn’t I just get a book from the LFL? The LFL didn’t have the specific book I needed, the one my book club is reading and which the public library was holding for me. LFLs are not so good when you need to find a certain book or research a particular subject, but if you just want to be surprised by a small and serendipitous set of choices, they are delightful and whimsical.

Little Free Library in Maryland

Little Free Library in Maryland

When I tried to imagine the same concept applied to museums, I envisioned similar little structures, filled with objects rather than books. A former toy developer in Virginia, Hans Fex, had a different idea: mini-museums consisting of tiny pieces of interesting specimens (like human brain and dirt from Dracula’s castle) encased in resin, which individuals can purchase and carry around in their pockets or display on their desks.

This project raises two main sets of questions for me:

  • Do these Mini-Museums truly boil down the essence of the museum to its tiniest form? Is it objects that ultimately make a museum, more so than place, context, interpretation, or visitors?
  • Why these particular 11, 22, or 33 objects? Do these dinosaur bone and moon rock pieces tap into some universal human interest, representing what is ultimately most profound and fascinating in this life? Would each person prefer their own unique set of artifact samples? Does this selection reflect any bias (for example, are these items the things Americans might find most interesting, while people from other cultures might choose a different set of objects?)?

I want to avoid the temptation to dismiss the Mini-Museum idea just because it’s different and untraditional. Or is it actually extremely traditional – hearkening back to the days when those who could afford it had their own personal cabinets of curiosities, with no curators or educators or conservators?

The Little Free Library and Mini-Museum concepts offer divergent takes on the idea of ownership. LFLs allow books to be shared indefinitely, with no owner – not the lender, not the borrower, not any library system supported by taxpayers. There is no one to whom the books ultimately have to be returned, though there’s a pay-it-forward ethos that encourages those who take a book to come back another time and leave a book.

Mini-museums, on the other hand, take mummy wrap, dinosaur egg, and meteorite and give paying customers a tiny chunk of each that they can call their own. To some extent, museum gift shops also allow visitors to take home a tiny bit of history or science or art, but the objects on display in exhibits for everyone to see are considered the main experience.

If you had your own mini-museum, what objects would you want it to include? And how do you think mini-museums fit into the larger museum world?

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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One Response to Little Libraries and Little Museums, Revisited

  1. Pingback: Take a Book, Leave a Book at Twinbrook | Informed Humane

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