Friday, July 10, 2009

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come

MUSEUM magazine: May / June 2009


“It would be dangerous, however, for museums to focus on narrowly defined missions and trust that someone else will grapple with the challenges facing society.”

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 43

Unfortunately this represents fundamentally poor advice. If museums were to reprioritize their missions, in order to evaluate and strategize potential responses to the possible impact of shifts, trends and change measured by means of prediction, then museums would expose themselves to the risk of becoming constrained or worse, absorbed by the drag and creative dampening influences of real-time. While certain aspects of institutional ‘life support’ must respond to fluctuations in the contemporary marketplace it nevertheless remains imperative that the core work of the museum stand outside the context and timing of the real world. The work of museums must not be rerouted to map or respond to the short term adjustments of fashion; whether shifts in aesthetics, trends in politics or even short term changes in scientific thought. Museums are media, media designed to engage the future as it unfolds unceremoniously and incrementally day to day. Only by operating according to mission; select, evaluate, preserve and interpret, can museums remain free to fulfill their role as points of collection and redistribution where the past and future emerge, to be considered in the present.

Certainly playing; predict the future represents an interesting challenge; however, predictions are not what are required when seeking to help the average museum of today to meet the demands of tomorrow. Predictions rely on informed but nevertheless clever attempts at applying processes of logical analysis and reasoning, bringing these to bear on a blank and nearly infinite canvas of open-ended potentialities. Therefore, while entertaining, developing predictions and targeting strategic decisions based on best guess scenarios will not help support museums in their work to merge today with tomorrow.

But, while predicting the future might not represent a practical activity, maintaining relevance is essential. Over the last quarter century museums and their audiences have grown not only in sheer numbers but also in maturity of spirit. Together, museum and visitor have done a pretty good job of ‘seeing’ what’s coming and have responded by incorporating a meaningful, mission-based awareness of the whole Earth as an immensely diverse but finite location, a place of measurable distances and limited resources, natural and cultural. The creative tension and exchange between visitor and venue enlighten the means by which museums meet the demands of maintaining a public trust and with the advent of advancing technologies the role of visitors will continue to increase and evolve by allowing for the customization of partnerships, enabling museums to achieve true community connectivity and with it, balance of purpose, process and performance in the 21st century.


Museums should be oases of the real in an increasingly virtual world. Along with the outdoors and places of worship museums represent the best opportunities for getting away from it all.

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 41

Museums wouldn’t function very well as places for “getting away from it all”. In truth, the two examples meant to serve as parallels or models for museums are interpreted incorrectly. Certainly Thoreau might argue that the ‘outdoors’ requires at least bit of investment and patience to appreciate if not understand and it seems doubtful that any person of real faith would imagine their place of worship as a venue for “getting away from it all”. To the contrary places of sanctuary are in fact consciously managed outside of real-time precisely because the work of worship is so profoundly and fundamentally taxing. Like museums, places of worship require those who visit to invest in the process of creating the essential ‘meaningful’ experience.

This argument does not mean to dictate that museum ‘visitation’ must be deeply meaningful or that it can only be enjoyed in a fulfilled state. But the visitor must be encouraged to work at least a little bit, because only through partnership can a highly functional and confident institution emerge. Imagine a museum in ‘communion’ with its visitors. Picture a museum identified by a unique personality, a museum invested in the development of its own story, bound by a singular mission and narrative. This is the profile of an institution prepared to collaborate with any demographic, embrace every useful technology, cross any border and do business in every land.

The mission is the tool, the razors edge that sculpts context, for art, science, conservation, history or even the preservation of memory. It is because of each individual museum mission that some museum will always be prepared to engage the challenges facing society. The museum is a doorway opening on the past, present and future. Whether museums collect ancient ceramics, plant DNA or the ‘Tweets’ of the first ‘wired’ U.S. President the passion to pursue the acquisition of objects, of things of data remains as fundamental to our human nature as our curiosity. To preserve these and vouchsafe them for future generations is our duty and obligation. However, if we only acquire and warehouse then we are only hoarders and protectors. Therefore we complete our mission and embrace the public’s trust. We interpret, we exhibit, we program, and we publish. We acknowledge that museum-making is an old story and a never ending work in progress and it is the job of our generation to continue to carry on with that job; in the field, in the storeroom, within the exhibit hall and in the public eye.


More museums will be places of cultural exchange in their communities; they won’t have any other choice. Museums will be the primary sites for civic dialogue about community interests and the policies that affect communities.

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 40

There’s a lot of talk about how museums serve communities. But “communities” are not just “neighborhoods,” districts drawn on a map. Community is mapped on the mind, a set of common interests and perspectives. Museums serve as focal points for those interests – external interest in topic or discipline, of course, but also internal interests in identity, self-worth, and self-actualization.

Museums programs serve communities by helping their members realize these goals. But a new age for museums may emerge as various political bodies, commercial ventures and cultural communities around the world recognize that the act of museum building itself can be a catalyst for driving mutual interest and cooperation. Governments and ordinary citizens alike will learn that museum-building can excite, gather and focus populations. Building efforts become a lens through which communities can consolidate knowledge, cultural energy and material wealth in order to achieve a common agenda.

Museum-building can offer everyone in a community the chance for collaboration. By joining together, distant and even disparate groups may discover common ground likely to urge conversations, potential exchanges of ideas, or even a pooling of resources. The activity surrounding a museum-building project can lead to unexpected outcomes, creating a model of cooperation applicable to other, non-museum-based endeavors.

Therefore it seems reasonable to speculate that at some point in the near future, citizens around the world will start to weigh the merits of museum-building. Such efforts are most likely to start gelling at the most local level, for that is where the needs are greatest, and the impact can be greatest as well and it appears likely that small to medium sized museums will lead the way. Advocates must recognize that museums are one of the few remaining enterprises with the power to provide even the most fragile groups a strong sense of worth and permanence. Communities must take the initiative to either develop and build, or to restore and renew, their own museum resources.

As noted, communities are not just neighborhoods. But every museum is physically located somewhere. To accomplish anything at all, we must all “act locally.” But, to avoid becoming irrelevant backwaters – or, worse, symbols of community splintering and Balkanization – we must also “think globally.” Advances in communication technology, and the perspective shifts they engender, compel museums to weave their own community – a network of data points uniting those distinct entities into a national whole.

Museums enrich and inspire our imagination. Museums bind the past with present and by doing so offer us a chance to connect with our future. Museums also remind us that it is our duty to save for succeeding generations some form of, and perhaps appreciation for, our artistic, cultural and scientific heritage. This heritage is the foundation of our identities–as individuals, as communities, as nations. It is the vital work of museums to validate these communities—the individuals they comprise, and the nations they compose--and ensure that they are appreciated, understood, and preserved every bit as well as the objects they happen to produce.


can museums rethink how they curate and interpret their collections, how they make those collections more accessible and how they involve diverse audiences in the meaningful work of museums?

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 42

Most museum workers learn quickly and almost take for granted that personal professional relationships constitute the core of modern not-for-profit business management. Trust, cooperation and understanding are the active components, and represent best practice for museum teams reaching outside the walls in order to forge useful connections beyond the boundaries of the organization. Successful outreach requires that museum staffs build solid, long-term and even personally bonded relationships with members of the community.
But what about building relationships on the inside? Do museum workers recognize that internal connections are just as critical for success and that just as much effort and attention needs to be given to building internal networks as is given when nurturing external partners? Forging internal relationships and connections—working well with others—is fast becoming the critical path for achieving success on the job. This appears to be especially true for museum staff working in public programming, with specific implications looming for exhibit and education staff.
The typical American museum is organized around a framework of standardized offices, subdivided into departments that often include administration, development, education and public programming. Recently, in response to economic pressures, exhibits and the educational programs that compliment them have begun to function as more than platforms for mission-based programming. Contemporary exhibits are now expected to drive attendance, push revenue and attract new markets through advertising and outreach. To better confront these heightened expectations, exhibit departments are seeking to nurture new partnerships inside the museum. By crossing departmental lines, exhibitors can transcend the organizational frameworks of traditional museum infrastructure.

Nevertheless, despite all of the emerging technologies, and all kinds of new scholarship and methodologies, and all the things you can see in exhibits or be told by smart colleagues or think up by yourself in the shower—in the end, it still boils town to putting together good, old-fashioned teams. From working on 25,000 sq. ft. exhibits with multi-million dollar budgets and staff topping 100, to developing a single room in a small children’s museum, successful projects feature frank communication and collaboration.
The contemporary museum exhibition or education professional is in real need of access to fresh ideas and novel strategies for developing, adapting and building cross-departmental partnerships within their institutions. The top-down hierarchy still in place within most U.S. institutions is quickly growing ineffective in the face of a tough economy and direct competition from an ever-expanding entertainment marketplace. Reorganization has been tested, but museums remain conservative and continue to lag behind. However, interest is growing from the ground up, from workers eager to rethink and retool organizations in an effort to build a more integrated network of human and material resources; an integrated network that will allow museums to compete creatively in the future.

Rich Faron
Museum Explorer, Inc.

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