The Future of Museums!

I’ve just returned from the American Association of Museums meeting in Philadelphia where I had the extreme pleasure to present alongside Beth Merritt of AAM and Susie Wilkening and James Chung of Reach Advisors. Our presentation, Museums and Society 2034, featured the data Reach Advisors has gathered and analyzed for the Center for the Future of Museums, an AAM initiative. I was asked to respond to the data from the perspective of a museum director. How do you anticipate the future of museums?

I’ve pasted my remarks here from the session. If you’d like to read the Reach Advisors white paper, which my remarks are in response to, go to

My remarks…

A Glimpse of the Future of Museums

What this means for a museum director

As a museum practitioner, I’m intrigued by the concepts presented today. I wonder what I can do now to anticipate and prepare for the future. Susie and James have given us a great deal to think about and you’re probably thinking, what now? What do I do with this information?

Reading the future is an exciting proposition. We can gaze into a crystal ball all we want, but we can never really know the future. We can infer the future. And if we aren’t deliberate about our crystal ball gazing, then we can easily slip into navel gazing and find ourselves left in the dirt as the rest of the world passes us by. How do we turn into crystal ball gazers? I don’t know. But we may be able to recognize some signposts along the way and do something to stay on track.

First of all, let this wave of new information pass over you and give it some time to sink in, to steep, and you’ll see some key elements come into focus. And for each one of you those key elements differ based on organizational culture, physical location, museum type, and personal experience.

Museums, as we all know, have been experiencing “game changing” moments over the last 20 years or so. The model is shifting. Museums are paring down resources and ensuring relevancy to survive. I think the past 18 months has made this alarmingly clear. How can we take what we’ve learned and combine it with future trends to guarantee a sustainable museum model? I have some ideas to share.

Know Your Environment

If you’re a museum director, hopefully you think a great deal about your community, your staff, your board, your organizational culture. How does your audience react to the museum? How do the human resources work together to reach goals and advance the museum? What are the socioeconomic issues in your community? Each time I consider a new initiative or program where I work, I consider our environment. How will this read? Will this resonate? Will anyone care? Considering the future and planning for it requires this external awareness. So if you don’t do this on a regular basis, that’s my recommendation for what to do next. Consider the 360 view first, then consider tomorrow. Having said that, here are some additional steps to consider.

Plan for the Future of Museums

We already do this as museum directors, but do we always consider future trends as presented here today? I haven’t. But I will in the future. I have a feeling it will give my organization an edge if I choose wisely.

And while we can’t turn the ship into every opportunistic wind, we can consider our environment and select what has most meaning for our museum.

For example, are you in a highly diverse urban area and you’re the director of a historic house museum built by a rich white family of 100 years ago? What stories are you telling and experiences are you creating that have meaning for tomorrow’s audiences? Thinking futuristically and strategically will require substantial resource investment and planning. You may not be able to get there in your next five year plan, but you can certainly start collecting data, gathering feedback from constituents, brainstorming with stakeholders – all in an effort to meet the coming future and embrace it. This approach makes for a sustainable museum.

Are you a museum out in the hinterlands of America with a far-reaching story? Would most people be interested if they could just get to you? Consider new outreach programs through virtual access to the museum. Online exhibits, interactive programs, information delivery that helps visitors put you on their “life list” of museums. This need not require substantial financial investment all at once. You can break it down into manageable bites so you can rise up and meet the future.

Integrating future thought into strategic planning processes is an easy step to take. If in the end, you have only facilitated a conversation about the future with your board and staff, you’ve done a great deal. That’s what a strategic plan is anyway – a plan for the future. Learning to review the trends and projections will be another smart addition to your already sound approach to planning.

Befriend Technology

During the course of this conference you’re going to hear a boat load of information about Web 2.0, if you haven’t already. If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I say Web 2.0, get thee to a session with Web 2.0 in the title! But let’s assume you’ve heard of it.

Social networking, virtual worlds, gaming—all of this will continue to mesh with American life. You’ve got to embrace it every step of the way.

Social networking as we know it now will certainly change in the future, but its essence will prevail. People enjoy connecting on these technological planes, making friends, and renewing connections. This new version of community requires the presence of museums just like the city where you live enjoys its museums.

Furthermore, you have to meet people where they’re at. Just like we need to lead museums that are inclusive of our communities, we need to communicate in the same way as our audiences. Social networking has surpassed email already as the prime mode of electronic communication. I didn’t think that was possible. Someday another form of communication will surpass social networking. Will you be ready?

I would also argue that sites like Facebook offer a new freedom of expression that I’ve never had access to. If I want to list the top 5 items I would need to survive a zombie apocalypse, I can do that. Facebook has an app for that. And I can post it to my Facebook page for comment and dialogue. While I admit this is not a groundbreaking museum leadership strategy, it does help me get the cobwebs out and think out of the box a little. Helps me stretch my brain muscles—but I digress. My point is that this new method of digital communication can lead to untold creativities and ideas, pushing the envelope of human expression even further.

While Facebook is all the buzz now, as MySpace was yesterday, younger users are leaving it in increasing numbers (they don’t like all the “old people” like me on there) and heading to Twitter (of course I’m there too!). What’s next? I can’t tell you that, but what I can tell you is that if it’s free, and I like using it, my museum’s on it! That’s the only gauge I have and that’s my recommendation for you. Pay attention to the tech trends. See where they’re going.

Our children today don’t know a world without computers and computing. It’s their way of life. When this generation grows up and begins to contribute to the technological work force, the possibilities are truly limitless and beyond much of our imagination. Pay attention now—watch what they do and where it leads them. You’ll want to position your museum in their line of sight.

Consider the Word Authentic

Museums are traditionally about the authentic experience. Walking through the room where Lincoln died, peering at Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or gazing at Van Gogh’s flowers and observing his dramatic brushstrokes—when you see these artifacts for the first time you know what all the fuss is about. These moments are where museums truly have a corner of the authenticity market. But will we for very long?

What do we mean when we say authentic? We’re referring to the genuine article. The real thing before you. As we all know, museums are also in the business of preservation—taking care of the collections for future generations. But, as I often tell my volunteers, the worst thing you can do to an artifact is put it on exhibit. You’re aiding and abetting the inevitable deterioration of an artifact. It’s the management of this tension that makes collections care programs so important in our museums.

Many of us have made the trade off for replica-only presentations, but many of us (especially the smaller museums) are relying on the artifact driven exhibits and interpretations.

Here’s the good news, maybe. The youth of today are focused less and less about this authenticity we are purveyors of. Virtual worlds are their new playgrounds. As this perception develops in younger generations, maybe we can worry less about having the original on exhibit (and preserving it more effectively for the future) and consider authentic experiences more? Another bit of good news—as you heard earlier, the gaming culture is main stream in American society. Creating your personal narrative as you navigate an online gaming community, or blogging about your dating prowess, makes you a prime candidate for experiential learning programs that bring you in for a closer look at history and culture.

The Future of Museums Includes Experiential Learning

Experience-driven museum programs and events can have a deep, lasting impact. The white paper presented today makes reference to Follow the North Star, an educational program at Conner Prairie that capitalizes on experience and makes learning history an emotional proposition. I had the opportunity to participate in this program when I attended the Seminar for Historical Administration in 2004. I thought I had an idea of what to expect, what we’ll be doing, and what we’d learn. My daily work is in the field of history so I just knew I had it all figured out. I was wrong.

To find yourself seemingly adrift, in the dark, running past Indiana cornfields with the sound of angry voices and a cracking whip behind you is powerful. Suddenly I could come close, just a little, to what it felt like to be human property, to run for my life, and to make choices that directly affect the lives of my fellow runaway slaves. I was terrified and forever changed by the experience. I can’t claim that I know what it was like to be a slave in the 19th century, but I can say that I understand it better. My compassion is deeper. My appreciation for the African American experience is more profound. In that realization alone, I know I am a better person. I can do more to alleviate human suffering in contemporary society.

My time as a protagonist in this program is an example of experiential learning. All museum programs and exhibits don’t have to be as dramatic as Follow the North Star but museums can consistently integrate thought-provoking questions and situations in exhibits. Programs can tackle sensitive topics like race, religion, politics, world events, that craft who we are as citizens and empower us to be active members of society. Museums can facilitate the dialogue and be authentic in our purpose as centers of community engagement.

Look to the Small Museums

I have worked with small museums since 1994 and have been the director of a small museum since 2001. While not all small museums are made alike, so much can be learned from the small museum environment.

Small museums are defined as museums with budgets less than $250,000. They have staff members wearing multiple hats. And volunteers often fill key museum roles. Small museums have all the ingredients for success, there are just longer intervals between project milestones. Goals are scoped differently. Fundraising campaigns can take longer. Catalog backlogs can stretch into infinity. Marketing efforts rely on the shoestring approaches. The scope of educational programs are tailored for smaller audiences.

But I would argue that in those small, fast-paced environments there are some teachable moments for the museum community. In addition to being nimble and opportunistic, small museums have close community connections. Relying so heavily on volunteer labor keeps the community members engaged. They feel a kinship with the museum—they feel ownership. Community members feel the museum’s success is reflective of the community’s success.

And in small, rural communities, these museums often serve as community centers. This is the place where the action is! Friends and relatives see each other at museum events and programs on a regular basis. Museums, in addition to churches, are often the locations where the idea of community is tangible.

Small Museums Face Dwindling Resources

As you heard in the research presented today, dwindling resources will certainly continue in the future—forcing museums to do more with less. Small museums live in a constant state of doing more with less. What are their secrets? How do they persevere? I would argue that they are more nimble and have fewer moving parts. Therefore, small museums can seize opportunities rapidly. They have a quicker reaction time to success or failure.

Small museums also benefit from a grassroots mentality. Volunteers and board members can really get into the thick of museum work and understand why museums matter and what it takes to make then succeed. Community members can be the decision makers and the front line ambassadors. My suggestion? Look for the small museum thriving in its community. Spend time with the staff (if there are any) and the volunteers and ask why the museum matters. What works and doesn’t work in their environment? How do they prioritize work? Take examples from your larger museum and juxtapose it with the same example in a small museum. What’s different? What’s the same? I know you’ll find ways to economize for the future.

I bet many of you are already doing or considering this work at your museums. If so, bravo to you! My job today is to lessen the fear you may have about incorporating future trends into present work. I hope I have. You’ve probably realized you’ve already started.

Keepers of the Human Story

What I know for sure is that museums will continue to be keepers of the human story. It will be up to us, in increasing ways, to make museum visitors feel like they’re part of this story. My recommendations to you can be simply stated – know your environment, plan for the future, embrace technology, re-frame your museum’s idea of authenticity, and consider the lessons offered in the small museum arena. And, at the very least, consider what the futurists are saying on a periodic basis and weigh the ideas against your present reality. What can you do about it to prepare for tomorrow?

If you’re not willing to do this, you’re cutting your future short. I think most of us have heard that from our parents at one point or another growing up, so why not listen to them now?

As said before, I’ll be 62 when we realize the future we’re talking about today. I just hope I’m cognizant enough to remember what we imagined for 2034.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One thought on “The Future of Museums!”