Museum Digital Matter interview with Michael Edson, Museum for the United Nation -UN Live

Michael Peter Edson is the co-founder of the Museum for the United Nations — UN Live, a newly forming institution based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and locations around the world.

Your project is a great challenge, socially, politically (and also museologically) relevant nowadays. Can you please introduce the UN Live project?

It makes me smile that you begin this interview with a question about challenges. The Museum for the United Nations — UN Live is indeed a challenging project, and so it should be! Because the world is a challenging place. Challenging, but also full of optimism and untapped human potential, and that’s what UN Live is about. We are at the current moment a startup NGO, close to, but not part of the United Nations: UN Live will come at no cost to the UN. We will be a museum on three platforms: a physical museum building, civic house, and headquarters in Copenhagen (and other global cities); a worldwide network of partner institutions; and a global digital presence.

When will the museum open? Will UN Live have a permanent collection?

We hope to open the initial building in Copenhagen in 2023, but we have a great sense of urgency about making progress on global challenges, in particular the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, so we will start programming online and with our network in 2018. We will not have a collection in the traditional sense; rather, our “collection” can be thought of as the stories, creativity, and creative, problem-solving capacity of individuals and communities around the world.

What will the methods of the museum be?

UN Live will work mostly “from the bottom-up”, recognizing that our audiences are, or can become, experts, innovators, and problem-solvers in their own right. We are designing the museum to reach and inspire people, potentially billions of people and especially youth, where they live — often side-by-side with partners and institutions that are already trusted in the fabric of people’s daily lives.

UN Live seems like a visionary and far reaching initiative, but why is it a museum?

The idea to make UN Live a “museum” didn’t come at first from inside the museum world: museum professionals aren’t typically trained or encouraged to think and act at this scale! The idea grew from sustained thinking about platforms that could be used to bring many kinds of people together to work on global initiatives. Almost from day 1 we thought that a museum could be a powerful catalyst for change.

This seems like a great validation of the civic function of museums!

It is, and I also think it’s a statement about their versatility.

Museums can feature an incredibly diverse array of content, programs, and experiences; and there are no rules about what a museum is or who it can serve. But UN Live has a global mandate and we know that the concept of “a museum” is not universally loved, particularly in post-colonial societies. Neither is the UN! Our fieldwork has shown, however, that a museum for the United Nations will have tremendous convening power; that the “museum” label can be used to frame people’s expectations in positive ways; and that ultimately people will love us, or not, based on the specific experiences they and their friends have at UN Live, rather than on what we are called.

How important are digital communication and digital development for UN Live, and for museums in general?

Go to any city in the world, find some 20 year-olds, and ask them that question. Seriously! Museums need to be a part of people’s lives, and increasingly those lives are digital and physical; global and local; creating and sharing and consuming…together. Over half the world’s population is online and that is so important to our mission at UN Live; being digital is our best chance to connect with everyone in the world.

Are there two separate worlds out there? One online and one offline, or is there one only world?

There is only life, a blended whole. But the digital world is full of new surprises and new connections and it will continue to be so for the rest of our lives. Ai Weiwei writes about how Twitter is like a miracle to him, in how it connects him to a farmer, a peasant, to humanity. It is wise for us to pay attention to that, while never forgetting the poetry of the world beyond our screens.

Which kind of metrics do you use evaluating your digital presence?

UN Live is a museum of action: if it doesn’t result in positive action being taken, challenges being solved, lives being improved then it isn’t fulfilling its purpose. This makes UN Live very different than most museums and it drives all of our decisions. We are at the early stages of building a three-part evidence strategy for all of our platforms using social network analysis, from social science and business management, to help us understand and strengthen the communities of people who work towards global goals; participatory narrative inquiry to help us understand and make actionable the stories people tell about change; and finally, polling, surveys, and evidence of global effort to understand the degree to which UN Live is affecting people’s feelings and behavior.

Finally….Can you recommend a book that you feel is clever and useful for Italian (and not only) colleagues?

I recommend The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande. It is a powerful and inspiring book about re-thinking the way we use expertise and authority to solve large-scale problems. He’s a beautiful writer and these are things that all of us who care about the future should know about!

Last (but not least) something about you. What sort of relationship do you feel with the museum you are creating?

I feel immensely privileged to be working on UN Live. The people who are drawn to this project are incredibly inspiring. I hope you and your readers can join us on this journey.

In italiano su Artribune Magazine #45