About the show

A tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Museum Archipelago believes that no museum is an island and that museums are not neutral.

Taking a broad definition of museums, host Ian Elsner brings you to different museum spaces around the world, dives deep into institutional problems, and introduces you to the people working to fix them. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let’s get started.


  • 102. Copies in Museums

    July 31st, 2023  |  14 mins 55 secs

    On Berlin’s Museum Island, four stone lion statues perch in the Pergamon Museum. Three of these lions are originals — that is to say, lions carved from dolerite rock between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE in Samʼal (Zincirli) in southern Turkey. And one is a plaster copy made a little over 100 years ago.

    Pergamon Museum curator Pinar Durgun has heard a range of negative visitor reactions to this copy — from disappointment to feeling tricked — and engages visitors to think more deeply about copies. As an archeologist and art historian, Durgun is fascinated by the cultural attitude and history of copies: the stories they tell about their creators’ values, how they can be used to keep original objects in situ, and their role in repatriation or restitution cases.

    In this episode, Durgun describes the ways that museum visitors’ perception of authenticity has changed over time, how replicas jump-started museum collections in the late 19th-century, and some of the ethical implications of copies in museums.

  • 101. Buzludzha Always Centered Visitor Experience. Dora Ivanova is Using Its Structure to Create a New One.

    January 23rd, 2023  |  19 mins 48 secs

    Since it opened in 1981 to celebrate the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party, Buzludzha has centered the visitor experience. Every detail and sightline of the enormous disk of concrete perched on a mountaintop in the middle of Bulgaria was designed to impress, to show how Bulgarian communism was the way of the future – a kind of alternate Tomorrowland in the Balkan mountains. Once inside, visitors were treated to an immersive light show, where the mosaics of Marx and Lenin and Bulgarian partisan battles were illuminated at dramatic moments during a pre-recorded narration.

    But after communism fell in 1989, Buzludzha was abandoned. It was exposed to the elements, whipped by strong winds and frozen temperatures, and raided for scrap. Buzludzha has been a ruin far longer than it was a functional building, and in recent years the building has been close to collapse. Preventing this was the initial goal of Bulgarian architect Dora Ivanova and the Buzludzha Project, which she founded in 2015. Since then, Ivanova and her team have been working to recruit international conservators, stabilize the building, and fundraise for its preservation.

    But Ivanova realized that protecting the building isn’t the end goal but just the first step of a much more interesting project – a space for Bulgaria to collectively reflect on its past and future, a space big enough for many experiences and many futures.

    In this episode, we journey to Buzludzha, where Ivanova gives us hard hats and takes us inside the building for the first time. We retrace the original visitor experience, dive deep into various visions for transforming Buzludzha into an immersive museum, and discuss how the building will be used as a storytelling platform.

  • 100. The Archipelago Museum

    November 28th, 2022  |  11 mins 23 secs

    In the early days of this podcast, every time I searched for Museum Archipelago on the internet, the top result would be a small museum in rural Finland called the Archipelago Museum.

    As my podcast continued to grow and my search rankings improved, I didn’t forget about the Archipelago Museum. Instead, I wondered what they were up to. What were the exhibits about? Did they ever come across my podcast? Were they annoyed by my similar name?

    And while the museum had a website and a map, there was no way to directly contact them. Years went by as the realization sank in—the only way to reach the museum was to physically show up at the museum. No planned appointment, no scheduled interview.

    So, for this very special 100th episode, I went to Finland and and visited the Rönnäs
    Archipelago Museum.

  • 99. Museums in Video Games

    August 8th, 2022  |  14 mins 20 secs

    The Computer Games Museum in Berlin knows that its visitors want to play games, so it lets them. The artifacts are fully-playable video games, from early arcade classics like PacMac to modern console and PC games, all with original hardware and controllers. By putting video games in a museum space, the Computer Games Museum invites visitors to become players.

    But, players can become visitors too. Video games have been inviting players into museum spaces for decades. In the mid 1990s, interaction designer Joe Kalicki remembers playing PacMan in another museum – only this one was inside a video game. In Namco Museum, players navigated a 3D museum space to access the games, elevating them to a high-culture setting.

    Since then, museums and their cultural shorthands have been a part of the video game landscape, implicitly inviting their players-turned-visitors to think critically about museums in the process.

    In this episode, Kalicki presents mainstream and indie examples of video games with museums inside them: from Animal Crossing’s village museum to Museum of Memories, which provides a virtual place for objects of sentimental value, to Occupy White Walls where players construct a museum, fill it with art – then invite others to come inside.

  • 98. At the Panama Canal Museum, Ana Elizabeth González Creates a Global Connection Point

    February 14th, 2022  |  13 mins 3 secs

    When Ana Elizabeth González was growing up in Panama, the history she learned about the Panama Canal in school told a narrow story about the engineering feat of the Canal’s construction by the United States. This public history reflected the politics of Panama and control over the Canal.

    Today, González is executive Director of the Panama Canal Museum, and she’s determined to use the Canal and the struggles over its authority to tell a broader story about the history of Panama – one centered around Panama as a point of connection from pre-Colonial times to the present day.

    In this episode, González describes the geographic destiny of the Isthmus of Panama, how America’s ownership of the Canal physically divided the country, and how her team is developing galleries covering Panama’s recent history.

  • 97. Richard Nixon Hoped to Never Say These Words about Apollo 11. In A New Exhibit, He Does.

    January 17th, 2022  |  14 mins 58 secs

    As the Apollo 11 astronauts hurtled towards the moon on July 18th, 1969, members of the Nixon administration realized they should probably make a contingency plan. If the astronauts didn’t make it – or, even more horrible, if they made it to the moon and crashed and had no way to get back to earth – Richard Nixon would have to address the nation. That haunting speech was written but fortunately was never delivered.

    But you can go to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and watch Nixon somberly reciting those words. It looks like real historic footage, but it’s fake. Artists Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund used the text of the original address and media manipulation techniques like machine learning to create the synthetic Nixon for a film called In Event of Moon Disaster. It anchors an exhibit called Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen.

    In this episode, Panetta and Burgund discuss how they created In Event of Moon Disaster as a way to highlight various misinformation techniques, the changing literacy of the general public towards media manipulation, and the effectiveness of misinformation in the museum medium.

  • 96. Tegan Kehoe Explores American Healthcare Through 50 Museum Artifacts

    November 15th, 2021  |  14 mins 57 secs

    Public historian and writer Tegan Kehoe knows that museum visitors act differently around the same object presented in different contexts—like how the same visitor excited by a bayonet that causes a triangular wound in an exhibit of 18th-century weapons could be disgusted by that same artifact when it’s presented in an exhibit of 18th-century medicine. Kehoe, who specialises in the history of healthcare and medical science, is attuned to how objects can inspire empathy, especially in the healthcare context.

    Kehoe’s new book, Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures, looks for opportunities for empathy in museum exhibits all around the U.S. Each of the 50 artifacts presented in the book becomes a physical lens through which to examine the complexities of American society’s relationship with health, from a 1889 bottle of “Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters” that claimed to cure a host of ailments to activist Ed Roberts’s power wheelchair that he customized to work with his range of motion.

    In this episode, Kehoe describes how her work has helped her see tropes in the way museums tend to present medical topics and artifacts, how the aura of medical expertise is often culturally granted, and how living through the current coronavirus pandemic changed her relationship with many of the artifacts.

  • 95. The Museum of Technology in Helsinki, Finland Knows Even the Most Futuristic Technology Will One Day Be History

    August 30th, 2021  |  11 mins 31 secs

    In 1969, noticing that technological progress was changing their fields, heads of Finish industry came together to found a technology museum in Finland. Today, the Museum of Technology in Helsinki is the only general technological museum in the country.

    But of course, technical progress didn’t stop changing, as service coordinator Maddie Hentunen notes, and that can be challenging for a museum to keep up.

    In this episode, Hentunen describes the museum’s philosophical stance on technology, how the museum balances industrial development with more open source design practices, and how the museum thinks about its own obsolescence.

  • 94. Jazz Dottin Guides Viewers Through Massachusetts’s Buried Black History

    June 28th, 2021  |  11 mins 54 secs

    The deliberate exclusion of Black history and the history of slavery in the American South has been slow to reverse. But Jazz Dottin, creator and host of the Black Gems Unearthed YouTube channel says it can be just as slow in New England. Each video features Dottin somewhere in her home state of Massachusetts, often in front of a plaque or historical marker, presenting what’s missing, excluded, or downplayed.

    The history discussed on Black Gems Unearthed has been left out by conventional museums, which are among the most trustworthy institutions in modern American life, according to the American Alliance of Museums. This trust may have more to do with power than truth-telling — and today, there are many different ways to build trust with an audience online. Shows like Dottin’s might point to where our new relationship with the authoritative voice is heading.

    In this episode, Dottin describes how working as tour guide and creating travel itineraries influences her work today, how she came up with the idea for Black Gems Unearthed, and what the future holds.

  • 93. Bulgaria’s Narrow Gauge Railway Winds Through History. Ivan Pulevski Helped Turn One of Its Station Stops Into a Museum.

    June 7th, 2021  |  11 mins 10 secs

    In 1916, concerned that the remote Rhodope mountains would be hard to defend against foreign invaders, a young Bulgarian Kingdom decided to build a narrow gauge railway to connect villages and towns to the rest of the country. The Bulgarian King himself, Tsar Boris III, drove the first locomotive to the town of Belitsa to celebrate its opening. But the Septemvri - Dobrinishte Narrow Gauge Railway would far outlast the King and the Kingdom, the communist era that followed, and the rocky post-communst period.

    Today, the railway is still a fixture of life in the region as a vital link to remote villages with no road access. But decades of neglect have left many stations crumbling. Train enthusiast Ivan Pulevski, a member of the organization “For The Narrow Gauge Railway,” helped found the House-Museum of the Narrow Gauge Railway in one of these abandoned stations. A sign on the building says the museum was built “for people, by people.”

    In this episode, Pulevski describes the decision to build the museum using only volunteers, how to interpret multiple eras of Bulgarian history through the lens of a railway, and why they have had no plans to seek official museum accreditation in Bulgaria.

  • 92. The Pleven Panorama Museum Transports Visitors Through Time, But Not Space

    May 3rd, 2021  |  12 mins 22 secs

    The Pleven Panorama transports visitors through time, but not space. The huge, hand-painted panorama features the decisive battles of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877–78, fought at this exact spot, which led to Bulgaria’s Liberation. The landscape of Pleven, Bulgaria depicted is exactly what you see outside the building, making it seem like you’re witnessing the battle on an observation point.

    Bogomil Stoev is a historian at the Pleven Panorama, which opened in 1977. The opening was timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s surrender following the battles and the siege of Pleven. The building itself is etched with the story of the siege and the battles, and because the landscape is filled with the remains of the combattants, this was the only structure allowed to be built on the spot.

    In this episode, Stoev describes how the creators of the Pleven Panorama learned from previous panoramas, how the museum contextualizes the history of Bulgaria’s Liberation, and how this museum has become a symbol of the city of Pleven.

  • 91. How Fake Museums Are Used in Theme Parks with Shaelyn Amaio

    April 19th, 2021  |  12 mins 35 secs

    Museums can be a shorthand for truth, or for history, or for what a culture values. Disney theme parks all around the world use fake museums as a tool to immerse visitors in the themed environment. This detailed world-building can make the imaginary universe more real—or provide a setup to subvert a narrative.

    But these fake museums aren’t the only ways the Disney theme parks present history to visitors. Public experience advocate Shaelyn Amaio describes how the parks “traffic in the past.” By removing references to the present or a future with consequences, parks like Disneyland free the visitor from responsibility for what happened in history. Since the opening of Disneyland in 1955, there have been several iterations of Disney theme parks, each reflecting the way we think about knowledge and history in the times they were built.

    In this episode, Amaio describes examples of fake museums in Disney theme parks, details how corporate-sponsored edutainment can reflect the public's anxiety, and explains why EPCOT has the most museum-like spaces at Disney theme parks.