Building a museum, brick by brick

A confession: I’m an AFOL—that’s internet shorthand for “Adult Fan of LEGO.”

As a kid, I spent many hours playing with my Classic Space sets. I’ve kept the bricks in an old green dishpan, occasionally getting them out for friends’ kids to play with or to cobble together something of my own. A few years back, my friend H. invited me on a trip to the LEGO store, where I built a couple of custom minifigs. I happened to pack one of those minifigs with me on a 2014 choir trip to Scotland. Along the way I started snapping pics of the minifig in various sites, resulting in the “The Adventures of Barry and Fitch.” (Tumblr displays the series in reverse chronological order, so you have to scroll down a ways to start at the beginning.)

Barry (a LEGO minifig) and Fitch (a mini cow) view a sweeping vista of the Scottish Highlands
Barry and Fitch take in the splendor of the Scottish Highlands

Later that year I came across a review of the LEGO “Museum Break-In” set by the head of security at the Getty Museum. I couldn’t resist going out and buying it as a Christmas present to myself—my first adult LEGO set purchase. It sits on a bookshelf in my museum office, with LEGO Bob Ross alongside painting a scholar stone.

LEGO Museum and Bob Ross
Bob Ross paints in plein air, oblivious to the shenanigans ensuing at the LEGO Museum.

More recently, I purchased a box of assorted LEGOs at IKEA to keep on my office desk (the lack of inscrutable building directions in the box seems like a missed branding opportunity). When I need a moment of decompression or creative spark, I pull out some bricks and start building. One of my first LEGO “doodles” was something that could pass for MOCRA’s building. Intrigued, I took my little model home and supplemented it with some of my dishpan bricks: LEGO MOCRA Mark I.


Before long I thought, surely I can improve the proportions. So, I went back to my trusty dishpan and cobbled together a patchwork LEGO MOCRA Mark II prototype. With the help of Bricklink, and some spare bricks from H., I procured the pieces to realize Mark II—only to discover that I still hadn’t quite got the proportions I was aiming for. Once again it was back to the dishpan and then Bricklink to arrive at LEGO MOCRA Mark III.

The essentials, the lines, the structure, were all there. Now I could focus on tweaking aspects of the build to achieve finer details. One more trip to Bricklink and finally: MOCRA Mark IV. You’ll note a certain Director welcoming visitors to the museum; the cat hairs on the slacks are an added element of verisimilitude.

For comparison, here are some shots of the actual building.

Maybe it’s fitting that I had the impulse to craft a LEGO MOCRA, as I’ve been involved with MOCRA almost since its inception, and thus had many opportunities to help shape a respected and vibrant small academic museum. Since creative play can provide inspiration and insights into the “real world,” here are some reflections on LEGO MOCRA and the actual museum.

The big picture and the details

Just as a good metaphor draws out the essence of the object of comparison, a model can help us see the clear outlines of a scenario by omitting extraneous detail. Models make projects or problems more manageable through generalization, or by focusing on one dimension in isolation. 

Building LEGO MOCRA provided an opportunity to visualize the museum’s physical plant in a new way, as I closely considered the proportions and interrelationships of the elements of the building. Working at microscale, I knew that there were certain details I could only allude to, like the narrow upper clerestory windows. LEGO MOCRA expresses the essence of the building.

Planning exhibitions and programming often begins with a degree of generalization, sketching ideas in broad strokes, followed by a period of refinement, of sharpening details and trimming away what is unnecessary. Hopefully the result is clear alignment with the museum’s mission, a focus on what is essential, and an efficient use of resources. On a larger scale, scenario planning uses narrative models to imagine possible futures, consider their implications for the museum, and explore possible paths forward to meet those futures.

Going back to the dishpan

As I developed LEGO MOCRA, I tried out a variety of approaches to modeling different features of the museum. Some worked, some didn’t. The process was akin to musical improvisation, where an underlying chordal structure or other rubric grounds a musician’s spontaneous expression. LEGO bricks have a certain logic and established ways of using them. But sometimes you turn a “headlight” around and suddenly you have a stained-glass window.

I bought a number of bricks I ended up not using. I had to be willing to recognize that what I thought would work, didn’t, and return to the drawing board. Yet my ventures to Bricklink weren’t wasted: going through the catalog of parts, I discovered bricks and colors that opened new possibilities.

This process reminds me of design thinking.  This methodology has gained traction in the museum field, with its process of identifying a problem, ideating and exploring possible solutions, iteratively prototyping and testing possible solutions, and implementing the final solution. Design thinking benefits from patience, humility, and a good sense of humor, and it entails a degree of risk by encouraging the involvement of end users (i.e., giving up a measure of control) and embracing failure.

Keeping up on inventory

I got some ribbing from friends whom I was updating on the progress of LEGO MOCRA, because I was drawing up parts lists and documenting each stage of the build.

And to be sure, it was sometimes a hassle, especially when I realized mid-build I could do something in a better way. I would disassemble back to a prior step, and start again, taking fresh pictures and updating the parts lists. 

My artist friend Con has sold me on the value of documentation and reflection when working on a project, especially a collaborative one. Arriving at the end of one problem-solving process is often the start of the next one, and it’s helpful when you can review where you’ve been, and why, before figuring out where you’re headed next. Documentation takes time and it’s tempting to gloss over it. But it’s invaluable for continuity at a museum from one generation of employees to the next, or even for long-time employees to pause and ask, why are we doing it this way again? What was the original reason for doing this, and do those conditions still exist, or is it time to reassess?

At MOCRA, this happened a couple of years ago when we changed our public schedule to add some evening hours. After twenty-some years with the same public hours, we realized that MOCRA wasn’t open at times students were likely able to visit. The public hours initially had been set to reflect a typical office work week, and weren’t that different from those offered at other area museums—and we had never re-examined them to see if they were working for the visiting public.

Reflection, revision and rebuilding are critical in the bigger picture. As was highlighted at the recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, COVID-19 has disrupted museum financial and operating models and exposed inequities and unexamined biases in staffing, collecting, and interpretation. It has brought to the fore questions about who is welcome at museums and the barriers that museums raise. (You can find some of my musings on this topic here.)

Scraping the bottom of the dishpan

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” it’s said, and scarcity can inspire creativity. To prototype LEGO MOCRA, I rummaged scuffed, faded bricks from my bin to combine with fresh bricks and even some off-brand ones (shhh). The result was charming, in a scruffy kind of way, but far from polished. As a “small-but-scrappy” museum, MOCRA operates on a modest budget with a minimal staff complement. As at many small museums, it’s sometimes a hand-to-mouth existence. But we’re adept at making the most of our resources and finding creative solutions with frugal means.

With both LEGOS and life, economic realities sometimes help clarify what is essential. I thought I’d try out the “headlight” piece in a few different colors to see what would best simulate the lower gallery windows . . until I discovered that one of those colors was extremely rare, and the only supplier who had the dozen I would need was charging $10.50 apiece for the part. $130 was not in the budget for an option I might or might not use. I only ordered the clear transparent version—and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Similarly, economics can sometimes rule out a course of action, freeing a museum to let go of an untenable option and invest resources in better ways. For instance, a members program could be a great way to build an engaged audience and raise financial support . . . until you realize the high upfront and sustained investment of staff time and budget needed for a successful program would compromise the museum’s primary work. And so you seek other ways to raise funds and to engage audiences.

However, sometimes the better choice is to invest the money and staff resources to accomplish the goal at hand. While the parti-colored LEGO MOCRA prototypes achieved the right dimensions and shapes, I needed to custom order parts in the correct colors to achieve the desired finish. The prototyping process allowed me to accurately determine what I actually needed, rather than spend in a scattershot way. This leads to a final observation.

Minding the gap

In any project or endeavor, there will be a gap between our intention and the realization, between the plan and the execution of the plan. Sometimes those gaps spur us to revisit and refine our plans, to make LEGO MOCRA Mark II and Mark III and Mark IV. And sometimes we realize that there’s no sense in letting perfect be the enemy of good. Or, as Seth Godin says pithily, “If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.” 

The gap can be uncomfortable, especially for those of us with perfectionist tendencies. It might feed a lurking impostor syndrome, or stoke envy of museums with more robust staff rosters and budgets. But it’s also a helpful reality check, an opportunity to inventory your resources and prioritize what you’re going to do with them. And the gap leaves space to move, to adjust, rework, and improve. If there’s no gap, there’s no more to be done than maintain, and creative energy dissipates.

I’m pretty happy with LEGO MOCRA at the moment. This round of ideation, prototyping, and implementation is complete. Still, I’m sure eventually there will a Mark V (and perhaps the Director will get a pair of slacks without cat hair on them). Or maybe I should grab some bricks out of the box on my desk and start dreaming up an expansion to the museum with an experimental gallery and community gathering spaces . . . 

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

2 thoughts on “Building a museum, brick by brick”

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