The Permeable Museum

A mighty combination of morphism, porosity and redundancy

Diane Drubay
Biomimetic Museums
10 min readMay 17, 2019


The last decade in the museum world has been one of unbelievable effervescence. Museum experts from around the world come together, exchange and try to embody the ideals of inclusion, diversity, wellbeing, experience, sustainability and relevance within their institutions. Museums today set up exhibitions and activity programmes, indigenous-powered spaces, transformative experiences, unthinkable collaborations, new types of cooperations, and at the same time, they encourage empathic, agile and resilient approaches and mindsets for more durability and resilience. But, whether the applied techniques are inspired by the so-called gate-keeper culture or by more innovative approaches such as design thinking, entrepreneurial attitude or technological disruption, the same level of openness, circularity and sustainability that we find in Nature is often missing.

In this article, I am playing the game of reticular thinking by applying biomimicry thinking on museum systems:

Towards a Bio-Inspired MuseumHood

Inspired by the cosmopolitan make-up of its visitors, the museum develops its purpose, identity and form by adapting to local and universal evolutions in society. The museum takes into account its territoriality and wants to become neighbours, not at the centre of a community but truly part of it, just as a neighbour could be in a district. When a museum reaches out to its community, it becomes a cherished urban feature and a social hub. So when a museum opens itself to its neighbours’ needs and becomes a valued service provider, we call this ‘MuseumHood’ — where ‘neighbourliness’ and ‘brotherhood’ come together.

As Miranda Massie, founder of the Climate Museum in the United States, said in an interview for the podcast Green Heritage Futures / Julie’s Bicycle: “Museums are enormously popular and deeply trusted. They have a fantastic level of transformational power in terms of expressing social values, creating communities around difficult questions, providing opportunities to sensory and communal experiences.”

Creating living spaces where everyone can feel free to learn, share, think or act is an essential milestone when it comes to building sustainable communities. When a museum becomes an agent of positive citizenship, it creates strong social bondings and social hubs within his surrounding and with the different stakeholders involved. By facilitating new connections and productions and creating a unique network, new communities-based biodiversity is created. Therefore, the richness, a modern museum’s community, lies in its randomness. It could be composed of indigenous communities, activist groups and social movements, interest-based associations, researchers and innovators, civil society organisations, artists and creatives, startups and companies and transient visitors.

Museums are safe and livable places where transformation is the heartbeat of the provided experiences. They are fabulous tools for people to understand, reflect, share and talk about a topic. Reactive cultural programmers can tell stories differently, transform a narrative so that it awakens minds, reach people and benefits communities.

Today, the wish to open up to one’s neighbourhood and create this precious ecosystem is strong for museums. Some of them already tried different approaches and published about it, and some others are still wondering how to do it while avoiding staying too closed and top-down. So how to open-up without losing your purpose and identity?

What Can We Learn from Permeability?

In Nature, the principle of permeability allows fluid movement, porosity and penetration. Permeability is why the African Bush Elephant can retain water and mud to cope with the arid climate, thanks to the shape of its skin and the narrow channels between each wrinkle and folds (source).

Permeability is also why eggs provide the perfect environment for birds to grow as the eggshell texture regulates the passage of all the water vapour and microorganisms necessary (source).

In Nature, permeability has the function of allowing fluids to infiltrate but also distributing them while regulating their speed. What plays a significant role in the proper performance of a material’s permeability is its porosity, but also the shapes of the pores and the level of connectedness.

For instance, the intricately cracked skin of the African Bush Elephant will help him retain five to ten more moisture than a smooth surface; With mud and water stuck in the skin, the evaporation is slower, and the parasites are kept away.

Now, take a step back, reflect on these characteristics and start to think about the way museums engage with their audiences. Whether they are passing through, accustomed or neighbours, visitors follow paths pre-defined by the museum teams. We see more and more curators working on the experience and the intellectual, emotional, physiological learnings. By curating, museums prepare the possible outcomes for the visitors. But gold lives where you don’t expect it.

A good visit is a visit that leaves a trace, the memory of a moment, an experience, learning, and this lays in the way the visitor reads, reacts, processes an exhibition, object or activity according to his culture, history, emotional or physical traits. Giving space for natural transformation and memory-based impact on an individual is the tricky part for museum professionals. Framed but not too-closed, curated but not too directed, engaged but not too obvious: here are the challenges public engagement managers, cultural programmers and curators are facing today.
Apply the approach of permeability to audience development, engagement and curation allow a museum to become an open and malleable as an organic community.

As an example, the Naqsam l-MUŻA project (Sharing MUŻA) shows how each individual understands pieces of the collection in its own way. The project develops a community-based approach of curation where the diversity of profiles respect the local identity and shape the vision of a collection which represents the communities (read Sandro Debono article ‘Curating Communities’)

A Symbiotic Ecosystem at the Museum

The approach of Permeability can inspire us to create such a multi-cultural, multi-purposes and multi-functions ecosystem by looking at it on three levels: a macro level based on morphism and openness, a systemic level inspired by porosity and infiltration and a meso level with the importance of redundancy and diversity.

Create some empty and open spaces

Permeability is defined in units of areas of open spaces (pores) in the cross-section that faces or is perpendicular to, the direction of the flow. By leaving the right amount of empty spaces and distance between them, fluids can go through at the right speed and allow material to abord it.

What creates a good permeability is also the redundancy of the shapes within the material to let the fluids go through. When you look at Nature what is fascinating is to understand with the porosity concept is that diversity and quantity don’t help it. Indeed, an “unsorted” and “packed” mix of material will quickly fill-up space without leaving any freedom for new things to come in. Therefore, redundancy doesn’t rhythm with quantity! The repetition of quality is the key to foster openness. Applied to the composition of a museum and especially to human resources, an angled way of directing, curating or managing won’t leave any space for creativity, diversity, agility and openness. The redundancy of profiles, skills and culture in recruited employees, but also the tasks and topics is crucial to maintain the appropriateness of tackling issues.

Also, thinking about the museum’s building or geographical state as morphic elements can foster social bonds and communities encounters. For instance, the construction of Thread, a cultural community centre in Senegal, shows a very open and agile architecture where the local communities, artists in residence, people living in the nearby village and everyone else can come and seat, share and discuss, organise a meet-up or use the electricity. By staying within the space, each brings its personality and contribute to the unique identity of the place.

Every day, Thread becomes a study hall for the children from Sinthian, but it can also become a place to learn how to tell stories differently.

The new museum district of Lausanne “Plateforme 10” has been designed with this idea of open space where everyone can do and be what they want. A district within a district, where cultural institutions can inspire new connections and creations, a place where even non-visitors are invited. To achieve this idea, the design studio INCH created urban furniture called “Circulateur” fully integrated within the district. Each piece includes public benches, with associated lighting fixtures, bins and bike racks to stimulate dialogue with museum architecture and encourage meetings between people.


Get ready to be infiltrated

Getting inspired by permeability is also looking at how the collections, the programme and activities can be porous enough to their environment to stay relevant. A museum which has a functional infiltration capacity will be able to remain agile, always listen, and ready to modify itself. The porosity of a mater lays in its ability to infiltration and depends on the in-between spaces created. For instance, leaving free spaces in the rooms and empty moments in the programme create more opportunities for reactions to news or last-minute needs, or having an ongoing audience study or adopting a transversal culture within the cultural programme where one activity can inspire the other.

In his essay “Betwixt and Between”, Sandro Debono, director of the MUZA in Malta, explains the liminality of connections and interactions within the Maltese territory that is seen as cosmopolitan with a strong hybrid and multifaceted cultural identity. From the analysis of the historical evolutions of the territory and development of local art history, his quest is to find the right equilibrium and apply this diversity to create unique cultural ecology within his museum.

Plan Général de la Ville Capitale de Malte Attributed to Giorgio Grognet de Vassé (1774– 1862) MUŻA — Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti (Heritage Malta)

One other of my main inspiration is the work of Alistair Hudson, actual director of Whitworth and Manchester Art Galleries and ex-director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In Middlesbrough, one of his first projects was the exhibition Localism where only artworks and objects from local inhabitants were exhibited. Part of them, a set of local clay pottery was shown, and this inspired the museum to create a programme to produce locally modern clay pots and generate a new source of income for the inhabitants, but also implement a ceramic studio to people can learn to make them. Another project saw local people learning how to make furniture by creating the furniture of the museum and being able to sell them directly at the shop. Here, the museum is fully infiltrated by the locals (check the video of Alistair’ speech at We Are Museums 2018).

From Christopher Dresser’s clay pots to ceramic studio at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (United Kingdom)

Another excellent example of this approach is Tate Exchange, the community space of Tate, and especially the programme Tate Neighbours which gathers local stakeholders for a one-month workshop and ended with the decision of changing the name of one Tate’s building for the name of the local activist and volunteer Natalie Bell.

Tate Neighbours at Tate Exchange / Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning and the Feminist Library at Tate Exchange

Planned to open in 5/6 years, the team behind the upcoming Museum of London in West Smithfield has already started to create new projects, cultural programmes and partnerships to develop a sense of Smithfield as a uniquely creative, cultural and shared space for all Londoners. They want to start to inhabit the new district, see the “museum as a host” and “encourage generous ideas of how to share a place”. The project is integrated into a broader cultural area called “Culture Mile” which is going to be the next cultural and creative destination for Londoners. The development of a ‘Smithfield Programme’ relies on the subtle research and creative approach to curating, community archaeology and public engagement from many members of museum team, including Lauren Parker, Head of Creative Partnerships. Therefore, as an upcoming democratic space open to everyone, she has started to organise family festivals, including the 150th birthday party of Smithfield Market or even a year-long season programme full of events and activities on the Future of the City and how we can all improve the way we live today.

150th Birthday Part Smithfield Market / Guerilla gardening / FoodCycle Pickup

To summarize, I will advise you to take care of four crucial elements if you want to engage with your local communities and become truly permeable:

To become permeable and POROUS to your communities, a good REDUNDANCY of spaces, activities and profiles thanks to empty and OPEN-SPACES facilitates INFILTRATION and morphism.

The natural water cycle never ends and, so do museums. Transformation is fully-part of our lives, and museums are now ready to evolve and start a new cycle.

This article is part of a series introducing models of museums inspired by Nature. Read the others here.



Diane Drubay
Biomimetic Museums

Founder of @wearemuseums. Co-founder of @alterhen. Arts & Culture for the Tezos ecosystem. Visual artist nudging for nature awareness.