Museums have long tried to straddle the line between being education-oriented institutions versus being exclusive spaces recognized for their superior exhibits and collections — all the while making enough money to keep the doors open for either purpose. Ideas like monthly "free days" have increased admission numbers, but a new industry trend may help change the way the general public interacts with museums.

On paper, the museum created by MICRO doesn't seem as if it would make a big splash. MICRO’s first exhibit space is tiny — about the size of a vending machine — and highly specialized. It focuses entirely on one rather obscure subject: mollusks.

So why has it earned high praise from almost everyone?

A museum the size of a vending machine

This museum-in-a-box, created by MICRO founders Amanda Schochet (an ecologist) and Charles Philipp (the exhibit designer and media producer), has some attention-drawing aspects. Its contents include a 3-D-printed octopus brain, holographic projections of various mollusk species and a liter container of snail slime (the approximate amount a single-shelled creature would need to travel one mile). In order to explain the unique sensory capabilities of species like an octopus, the creators installed tiny human figures with sensory receptors all over their body, in roughly the same places as mollusks.

The design of the mollusk museum is undeniably creative, but the most innovative characteristic might be its location. Because of its size, the museum can be moved quickly and easily with nothing more than a standard-sized SUV. The first box started its run at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The placement of this first installation in one of the “other” boroughs of New York was not random. Manhattan has the highest concentration of museums in the city, and a majority of the most famous museums are also located there. MICRO seeks to make exhibits more accessible in places with fewer museums. In addition to the library, the organization has installed or plans to install boxes in community centers and in the Ronald McDonald House, among other places.

The choice of subject matter was also carefully considered. MICRO points out that more than half of the country’s most visited museums are science-related, but science museums are not as accessible as other types of museums. In New York City, only five of the 135 total exhibit spaces are science- or math-related.

Museum features

The ingenious content proves that this is a professionally produced exhibit, and that the level and accessibility of information is on par with displays in larger museums.

Experts were tapped to provide insight into different aspects of the mollusk. The 6-foot-tall box contains information about prehistoric mollusks, their unique sensory makeup and brains, reproduction, family units, extinct species and death. MICRO is about to launch an audio tour and has already published a companion book for visitors online.

Rather than rotating exhibits, MICRO plans to distribute a “fleet” of mini-museums to places around the New York area and eventually in other places as well. Organizers already have announced the second museum-in-a-box subject: perpetual motion. They plan to create and distribute one new subject each year.

The ultimate goal is for MICRO to become the most visited museum in the world within five years. That may be realistic based on the visitor data for the first few mollusk installations. MICRO would need to have approximately 100 boxes in circulation to achieve that aim, which doesn't seem out of the question especially given the high level of attention the effort currently enjoys.

What else is on the horizon?

The early success and possible game-changing development of MICRO’s museums certainly make them noteworthy. Most of the current development that could change the museum experience is focused on bringing new tech into existing exhibit spaces. Artform AR and Musar, for example, allow museums to integrate augmented reality into their exhibit halls. Second Canvas, meanwhile, allows visitors to zoom into artworks to the point where they can see individual brush strokes. These developments could enhance the museum experience, but they do not have the focus on accessibility that defines MICRO’s efforts.

By downsizing its exhibits, MICRO seems poised to change the way that people interact with museums. As Phillip told the Observer, “we believe that informal learning environments, like the Ronald McDonald House, can be incredibly powerful because of the element of surprise and the element of discovery. We ultimately want to see MICRO museums in places like hotels, transit hubs and [Department of Motor Vehicles]. We want to democratize cultural institutions.”