The Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), part of the American Alliance of Museums, recently released the 2016 edition of TrendsWatch, its annual report highlighting global trends museums should consider as they move forward to better respond to society’s behaviors and needs. This year, as CFM’s vice president Elizabeth Merritt points out in her introduction, marks the first time the report has an overarching theme. The five trends it spotlights deal with ever-expanding perceptions of self-definition and representation; museums, Merritt urges, should shape and augment the experiences of visitors and its staff to better cater to these new notions of identity.
Who you are is often tied to what you do, Merritt writes, and thus the report opens with an examination of the job market and poses the possibility of a future with lower full-time employment. Freelancing and independent contracting is on the rise, thanks in part to factors like a growing acceptance of more fluid work hours, the popularity of coworking spaces, and increased integration of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace. One result, the report notes, could be that people have more flexibility in terms of when they visit museums. Internally, museums may have to rely less on full-time staff members. As institutions consider this changing workforce they must examine their internal practices and adapt with innovation, Merritt suggests. On how to present themselves as attractive places of employment, she writes:
Museums can’t compete with the private sector on wages, but if they are willing to abandon outmoded practices, they can become the ultimate cool, creative place to work, so much so that the best and brightest are willing to sacrifice income to work in the field.
To accommodate the kinds of programs and services visitors may increasingly need from their local museum, Merritt has the interesting idea of broadening the role of the museum to foster coworking spaces. An art museum, for instance, could “become the community hub for indies and startups in creative fields … this shift could advance museums’ missions and generate revenue from underutilized space.”
Museums will also have to cater to an entirely new community of visitors — and keep up with them, as it is a community that is only getting larger and more diverse. Last year’s report touched upon the significance of wearable tech; this year’s notes a movement “beyond the realm of assistive technology, designed for people with disabilities, into augmentive technology that expands the boundaries of basic human capabilities.” While many museums are still working to improve the visiting experience of those with physical or cognitive disabilities, over the next quarter century this group of people will likely undergo radical changes as human abilities evolve and people experience their surroundings in entirely novel ways thanks to technology that is implanted rather than simply worn.
“When humans can choose to enhance their capabilities in these ways, what constitutes average, much less normal?” Merritt asks. “And in an enhanced future, who will be considered ‘disabled’?” While museums may not be able to foresee all the ways the human body may be modified, they may be thoughtful about people with disabilities by integrating universal design, for instance, or showcasing their collections in inclusive and well-rounded ways.
Augmented devices actually constitute a trend of their own with the increasing presence of augmented and virtual reality. Augmented reality was previously on 2012’s TrendWatch; its reemergence emphasizes that the movement has only revved up in the past three years and is unlikely to fade soon. Now, however, these technologies are more accessible and affordable; but rather than fearing that visitors will experience art from the comfort of their homes through tools like the Oculus Rift, museums may use them to their advantage. Establishing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies, Merritt notes, may enhance the typical museum experience by creating unique experiences that engage with art in more accessible ways.
“What if visitors could see, handle, manipulate, and share digital doppelgängers of real objects, or share the attentions of a docent avatar?” she posits. While creating such programs is not cheap, the report suggests museums may partner with emerging production companies that work at lower rates.
The MFA Boston had one particular program intended to deepen engagement with visitors that was memorable for the controversy it triggered. The report mentions Kimono Wednesdays as part of the growing public call for museums to examine the objects in their collections and consider their role as, Merritt writes, “cultural hazmat teams.” From how they represent various cultures in exhibitions to how they send signals through something as simple as signage, museums should recognize their large sway over the representation of race and gender and be especially cognizant of how they structure displays and programming.
The report also encourages museums to contemplate how they may affect visitors’ well-being. Around the world, one recent trend is a move away from looking at money as the main measure of success and focusing instead on non-financial metrics such as happiness. Museums, too, Merritt writes, should do just that. She proposes that they view themselves not just as educational institutions but ones that may improve levels of happiness — not just for visitors but also for staff members, which they might do by conducting “an internal happiness audit.” Echoing the report’s opening chapter, she notes how museums may make up for salary disparities with the private sector through offering improved quality of life. The museum of the future should be hyperaware of the community it serves. Rather than simply existing as shelters for art that are open to the public, cultural institutions need to increasingly offer an environment tailored to their visitors not as a uniform audience but as individuals who have specific needs.