The Future of Museums

I usually make plans to read a report or two on Fridays, and while it doesn’t always work out that way, this Friday I managed to delve into “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures,” issued by the Center for the Future of Museums (an initiative of AAM). The report correlates larger societal, economical and technological trends to their potential impact on museums, and makes a good Friday afternoon read. While Elizabeth Merritt (Founding Director of the Center) warns us that the report contemplates “potentially dark futures,” I found surprisingly little in the report that would make me believe that I had to radically alter my course, were I a museum director or a curator.

Sure, there are threats, but navigated correctly, the scenarios resolve by opening up a role for museums that only they are uniquely poised to fill – the future is bound to be convenient! Here are some quotes from the sections highlighted in blue by the report which cap the discussion of issues:

  • Dealing with a multiethnic society? “Museums will be primary sites for civic dialogues about community interests and the policies that affect communities.”
  • Dealing with economic instability? “Museums are stable oases in the midst of turmoil. Building on their tradition of offering low-cost or free access and programming, museums play an even greater role in sustaining the well-being of their communities during a prolonged downturn.”
  • Dealing with an increasingly digital and virtual society? “The prevalence of the digital, virtual world raises public awareness of the increasingly rare world of non-digital assets that help tell the story of how humans got where we are.”
  • While I believe that any of these statements could be true now or in the future, I would have preferred if the report left us to ponder some of the more provocative and open-ended observations, such as…

    Already, Google, YouTube and Flickr have established themselves as museums of the digital world and are actively trying to redefine the idea of curating content.

    One of the key challenges I see for museums, and all cultural heritage organizations for that matter, is that they will have to move from a world where they are at the center of the universe to a world where their audience of potential users is at the center of the universe. The key question won’t be: how can I get more people through my door or to my website? The key question will be: how can I get my museum to the place where most people want to interact with my materials?

    Anybody who has grown up on Amazon will not be satisfied with the limited view of cultural content even the largest organizations offer. Traveling exhibits composed of loans from different sources may continue to tantalize a physical audience, but, as the report points out, that audience will be outnumbered by its virtual counterpart. How will museums overcome their fear of dilution of brand and work together to establish compelling, sustainable online resources spanning many different institutions? Today, the puddles of content on institutional websites may still seem exciting and compelling. Tomorrow, they will look irrelevant and be bypassed.

    The future of information, just as the future of museums, lies in its increasing interconnectedness. The report considers museums as individual institutions, whereas I believe by 2034, museums will have needed to learn to act as a community, or risk irrelevance in the face of other purveyors of content.

    I am looking forward to the more in-depth whitepaper promised for later this year. Despite my quibbles, this report clearly did its job – it got me to think!