Museums that travel
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Museums that travel

Museum on Wheels in Kępno (2015). Photo taken by Filip Basara for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN. 
Used with the permission of the Museum.

“New museology” is a notion which has been gaining popularity in museum studies since the 1980s when Peter Vergo (1989) proposed it in a book he edited. The “novelty” of new museology concerns a shift of focus in museum work: redefining the institution from collection driven into audience-oriented (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994: 134).

As museums’ scholars observe, the museums’ focus is no longer on collecting, preserving and displaying artefacts and remembering for communities what is significant in culture and science (Crane, 2011; Macdonald, 2011). It is instead about openness, participation and inclusiveness of individuals and communities in museums’ work (Arnold-de-Simine, 2013; Simon, 2010).

Focusing on community is among the key aspects of museums’ strategies and it is perceived as a means to include and give voice to the individuals and groups who have been formerly excluded or silenced (Crooke, 2011: 410). Museums increasingly become, or represent themselves as, more accessible and democratic (Ross, 2004: 85).

Yet, although inclusiveness, openness and participation are among the most emphasized and promoted values, museums are still perceived as vital social institutions responsible for converting “living memory” into “institutionally constructed and sustained commemorative practices which enact and give substance to group identities and foster memory communities” (Arnold- de Simine 2013, 1–2).

Museums on the move

Travelling exhibitions, which this article concentrates on, are one of the ways in which museums reach out to various communities and engage audiences outside the museum building, and especially outside of big cities. Over the past decades, the number of travelling exhibitions run by museums has gradually increased, in line with the richness of the educational and cultural offer accompanying these itinerant projects. As an example, the Smithsonian Institution based in Washington DC launched its Travelling Exhibition Service in the 1950s, and in Sweden a national body for preparing and managing travelling exhibitions was created in 1965.

The exhibition on tour takes the offer of the museum out of the building to broader audiences. Mobilities, constituted by developments in technology and media, are key to how the itinerant projects are constructed. They also influence the range of opportunities that the museums on tour can provide for the public, and the ways in which they can communicate or engage with audiences. In a broader context, advances in technology have always influenced human interactions, mobilities and power structures, but especially since the 1990s onwards the pace of these developments has been gradually accelerating with the rise in accessibility and affordability of digital technologies such as, among others, computers, digital cameras, mobile phones, e-readers, and navigation systems.

In scholarly investigations, such advances have been especially crucial for the “mobility turn”, which directed the interest of social scientists towards analysing how communication and the physical movement of people, including voluntary as well as forced migrations, can intersect and merge through digitized flows (Urry, 2007). Mobilities are various forms of transport, embodied movement and communication involving people, objects and data. Studying mobilities includes consideration of the infrastructures, or lack of them, which enable individuals, things and data to move, or which keep them static.

Itinerant museums are hugely dependent on mobilities: of the exhibition which has to be designed in a way that makes it suitable to travel, and which requires vehicles and roads which make the tour possible; of people – employees of the institution which runs the travelling project, but also of audiences which the museum attempts to reach – who need to be able to travel to wherever the museum stops, by car, bus, train, on foot, by bike or using other modes of transport. Furthermore, movement of data is crucial for creating, promoting and engaging with travelling exhibitions. Even if the itinerant museum does not rely on interactive elements, such as videos, audio recordings or computers with touch-screens with whatever relevant content, the internet and phones are usually used to communicate about the exhibition, at least to promote it on local media websites or social media platforms.

However, including interactive elements and employing multimedia in an exhibition is an increasingly popular practice in museums, not only travelling ones. An active role of a visitor is implied – he or she is expected to make choices and put effort into creating a personalized experience in the museum space. The experience and the story that each individual visitor constructs for him or herself in the museum depend on which media they engage with (Jenkins, 2011).

Changing the visitor experience

The changing role of the visitor is on the one hand rooted in the evolution of digital technologies and media. Boundaries between consumption, production and distribution are blurred and constantly changing in museums (Kidd, 2014). Alvin Toffler in the 1970s coined the term prosumption to represent the interaction between production and consumption in relation to digital media (Nightingale, 2011). Prosumption, however, can also denote the fluid positions of visitors in the museum – who consume but also produce: either by participating in the process of creating a museum exhibition or another project or, for instance, by contributing to the museum’s social media profiles. 

On the other hand, the evolution of the understanding of the visitor experience is tied to inclusiveness, openness and participation promoted by new museology. Museums identify serving communities as one of their key aims, and among the modes of implementing this aim is engaging individuals from the given communities in various ways. The engagement can involve co-creation or sometimes supporting the entire process of preparing and managing new projects. Yet, there is little evidence for including the complexity of the visitors’ experience in considering the “social relevance” which museums seek to achieve.

Often visitor numbers are one of the main indicators of museums’ “performance” (Simon, 2010) and what remains underexplored is the experience of visitors in the new museum (Kidd, 2014: 8). Yet, researching visitors, so those members of the target audience who visit the museum, as well as users who engage with the museum virtually through on-line platforms and participants who join activities organised by the museum, is a growing field within museum studies (Hooper-Greenhill, 2013; Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2007).

One of the ways in which travelling museums seek to provide social relevance is by encouraging some form of participation among targeted audiences. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which runs a number of international travelling exhibitions and projects, trains local youth to guide their peers through the exhibition. In this way, locals are invited to contribute some of their knowledge and perspective to the narrative offered by the House and in this way make the story more relevant to local audiences.

The Swedish Travelling Exhibitions (STE) initiative places high importance on “the development of better forms of collaboration regarding joint projects” (Hjorth, 1994: 104), which should begin at the planning stage. A travelling museum run by the Museum of History of Polish Jews POLIN, which is elaborated more in detail in the next section, engages local activists in towns that the museum visits to help with logistics and to organise accompanying events.

Case study: Museum on Wheels

Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN, through its exhibitions, educational, cultural and research programs as well as outreach initiatives, seeks to re-shape how Jewish history in Poland is narrated both in the country and abroad. The declared mission of the institution on its website reads: “To recall and preserve the memory of the history of Polish Jews, contributing to mutual understanding and respect amongst Poles and Jews as well as other societies of Europe and the world”(POLIN Museum 2017a).

From the way the museum’s main goal is stated, it is apparent that the social relevance of the institution’s work and serving the public is a key concern for POLIN. The museum’s activities are shaped in the context of new museology – promoting inclusiveness, openness, giving agency to the visitor, providing opportunities for participation in various stages of planning and preparing specific projects.

Museum on Wheels (MoW), the largest outreach project of POLIN emerged in this context – as an initiative designed to leave the museum building and the city to work with locals and provide educational content for audiences in small towns around Poland. Museum on Wheels seeks to fulfil the institution’s primary mission in small towns of up to 50,000 inhabitants, but it also travels to certain festivals on Jewish culture or history in larger urban centres around the country.

The core of the project is a travelling exhibition sited in a mobile pavilion (that can be dismantled and placed on a truck for transport) and an educational program. Both are designed specifically for audiences in rural Poland, where Jews for centuries formed from few percent to more than 50% of the local population. During the Holocaust, most of these Jewish communities were annihilated and at present there are no or very few Jews left in these towns. The material remnants of Jewish presence are often dilapidated and expunged from local memory politics.

MoW started touring in June 2014 and by April 2017 it had visited 65 cities, towns and villages, ten to twenty each year. Its largest component is a pavilion: a cube of 35 square meters. In order to host MoW in their town or village, interested local activists (usually NGO workers, teachers or employees of local cultural institutions) need to respond to the call for applications issued by the POLIN. The activists have to propose a programme to accompany the three-day visit of MoW.

When on tour, in each town or village, the pavilion is accompanied by POLIN’s staff: one coordinator, two educators, one technical employee and one watchman who guards the exhibition at night. The exhibition in the pavilion consists of “permanent” elements, such as a timeline of Jewish presence in Poland or a 3D model of a Christian-Jewish town from the early 20th century; and location-dependent components, of which the central one is a local interactive map indicating sites related to the Jewish community formerly inhabiting the town. 

The project aims to teach about the Jewish past and present in Poland as well as to support local leaders who are involved in promoting this knowledge locally, and who engage in restoration or protection of Jewish material heritage (POLIN Museum 2017b). Cooperation with locals is declared to be one of the central elements of MoW, but the way it happens is subject to a structure created by the itinerant museum’s curators and coordinators at POLIN.

The role of local activists cooperating with MoW is for instance to help arranging the logistics and infrastructure for the MoW visit and running accompanying events during the MoW’s stay related to Jewish culture and history. They also can provide photos, texts or video material to be presented on one of the screens in the exhibition’s pavilion and they are consulted in the process of creating the interactive local map.

Local activists receive support and some coaching from the educators as well as POLIN’s staff before and during the visit of MoW. Some of the activists stay in touch with POLIN afterwards, but the project is not about long-term cooperation but rather a one-time intervention which provides a space for three days for exploring the history of Jews locally and in Poland.

The approach adopted by POLIN is one among many that large institutions take in creating travelling exhibitions. What connects these itinerant projects is the engagement of mobilities of people, data and objects which contribute to identifying the relevance of museums for society and provide new ways for engaging with audiences. 


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———. 2017b. ‘Museum on Wheels’.

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Aleksandra Kubica is a PhD Student at King’s College London’s Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries. Her project is funded by London Arts and Humanities Partnership. In her thesis on the Warsaw POLIN Museum’s travelling exhibition, she explores how the itinerant museum is constructed and managed as an educational outreach project and how it is received in small towns around Poland to which it travels. She is interested in the connections between storytelling, agency, education and difficult memory. Aleksandra holds an MA (Hons) degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and an MA in Nationalism Studies and Jewish Studies from CEU, Budapest. Before starting her PhD she was an Archival Fellow at the Center for Jewish History in New York and worked as researcher and educator in Poland and Germany. At King’s College London she is involved in running a Cultural Memory Reading Group and developing an interdisciplinary module.


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