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The 6 Issues That Will Guide the Future of Museums

A Buckminster Fuller dome at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which is cited in the "TrendsWatch" support for its forward-thinking hurricane-proof design. (photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia/Flickr)
A Buckminster Fuller dome at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which is cited in the “TrendsWatch” support for its forward-thinking hurricane-proof design. (photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia/Flickr)

What does the future hold for US museums? A new report from, appropriately, the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) — a project of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) — identifies six trends that will shape the ways institutions do business, engage viewers, handle their collections, and renovate their buildings in the years and decades to come.

The 2015 edition of the CFM’s TrendsWatch report hones in on the open culture and data movements, consumers’ heightened awareness of ethics issues, personalization, climate change and rising sea levels, wearable technology, and the slow culture movement. Its author, CFM founding director Elizabeth Merritt, analyzes how these trends are affecting society at large, zeroes in on the ways they’ve impacted museums and on examples of successful adaptation, and offers advice for how institutions can use these lessons to inform thinking and decision-making. The range of issues is incredibly broad, covering everything from how visitors’ biometric data collected from wearable devices could drive museum programming to the ethical implications of accepting board members from industries that run counter to an institution’s mission.

Merritt’s conclusions and questions at the end of each section are illuminating and fascinating to ponder. On the issue of open data, she suggests:

Museums already hold their collections in trust for the public, both from an ethical and a legal perspective. Should the same principles apply to associated data? In that case, building digital infrastructure to support data sharing is as fundamental as creating exhibit galleries and collections storage facilities.

Members of Occupy Museums and other groups protest the newly-unveiled David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by Julia Friedman for Hyperallergic)
Members of Occupy Museums and other groups protest the newly-unveiled David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by Julia Friedman for Hyperallergic)

At the end of the “Ethical Everything” section the report suggests that museums:

Review and revise their ethics statements to address emerging issues. Traditional areas of concern like conflict-of-interest and provenance research may need to be expanded to include sections on internships, privacy of digital data and the ethical provenance of art displayed in the museum. Policies on individual and corporate support may need to be updated and strengthened, and museums working in the global arena may want to take a proactive stance on ethical concerns related to that work.

Merritt specifies, on the hot-button topics of museum workers’ wages and unpaid internships:

Now might be a good time to discuss what investments are consonant or inconsistent with the museum’s mission and values. Debate the pros and cons of having people on the board who publicly and professionally advance causes antithetical to the museum’s mission, whether that be science, sustainability or children’s health.

Surprisingly, the section on ethics makes no mention of another hotly debated issue in the museum field, diversity — though it does come up tangentially in a passage from the wearable technology section. The question of how to increase diversity among museums’ staffs and audiences is implicated in many of the areas on which this year’s TrendsWatch report focuses and may be its most glaring oversight.

With regards to how institutions can personalize visitors’ experiences, Merritt cautions:

Mass personalization requires lots of data, which is a challenge for museums individually and collectively. As museums build the technological capacity to generate personalized recommendations, they will have to convince people to contribute enough information about themselves and their preferences to jump-start the process. Many museums are just beginning to collect even basic data on how individual users interact with the organization.

On the issue of how museums should prepare themselves to handle rising sea levels and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the report counsels vigilance and earnestness:

When a museum large or small sinks significant resources into new construction, a cold-blooded assessment of current and future risks should inform everything from choosing a building site to selecting the elements of design. […] Create master plans for buildings and grounds that can be adjusted every decade to adapt to changing conditions.

An installation at the renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by Gabriel de Andrade Fernandes/Flickr)
An installation at the renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by Gabriel de Andrade Fernandes/Flickr)

The question of how to accommodate wearable devices seems poised to become the next frontier in museums’ hot-and-cold relationship with new technologies — see the current trend toward banning selfie sticks while encouraging selfies. Above all, the report encourages accessibility rather than catering to the latest high-end gadget:

Monitor the wearable technologies used by visitors, and be prepared to integrate them into BYOD delivery of content and experiences. Support the use of wearables (as well as hand-held devices) by providing free Wi-Fi and charging stations. Explore (with permission, of course!) how data from personal biomonitoring devices might be integrated with indoor GPS to track how visitors experience the museum physiologically and psychologically. If the museum has created content or experiences that can only be accessed via wearable technology, consider having devices available for loan to visitors who don’t bring their own. This would help bridge the “digital divide” and ensure that all visitors have access to what the museum offers.

Perhaps the most abstract section concerns the implications of the current “slow” trend for museums. While many think of museums as traditionally “slow” places, a visit to virtually any museum today will quickly dispel that notion. Merritt suggests that slowness must be cultivated:

Our field needs to grapple with what it takes to create slow experiences. Sometimes museums wrongly assume that “slow” is simply part of their DNA. […] It takes conscious and thoughtful work to create slow engagement, with or without technological mediation.

One particularly interesting comment got me thinking:

As the world bifurcates into fast and slow lanes, museums will have to find temporal or spatial ways to accommodate different paces.

What if museums organized their permanent collections not by period, region, or medium, but by pace? One could spend a couple of hours in the “slow” galleries looking at a dozen illuminated manuscripts, video art pieces, and installations, or take in hundreds of design objects, photographs, and sculptures in the “fast” galleries. That’s a vision of the future of museums I’d like to see realized.

Download the full 2015 Center for the Future of Museums TrendsWatch report here.

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