Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

AAM TrendsWatch report 2021

Elizabeth Merritt, New TrendsWatch! Navigating a Disrupted Future, American Alliance of Museums, 2 February 2021

In a normal year, TrendsWatch explores the impact emerging forces of change may have on museums in the next decade or longer. Some, such as demographic shifts, affect all museums in the present. Others, such as the rise of blockchain technologies, are just barely visible in the distance.

This is not a normal year. In 2021, museums face rapid, transformative shifts on all fronts.

In response, the newest edition of AAM’s TrendsWatch focuses on issues museums must attend to right now, to minimize harm to their communities and ensure their own survival. In the report, I make the case that museums are a vital strand in the complex web of nonprofits that holds together America’s patchy infrastructure of education, health, and economic support. As such, they can help protect those most vulnerable to the economic and psychological damage wrought by the pandemic. Having profited from inequitable systems, museums have an obligation to help repair the damage of hundreds of years of racial oppression. Higher education is taking a major beating, and academic museums can help colleges and universities weather the storm. Finally, to ensure their own survival, museums must quickly become more efficient and effective, which means confronting the digital reckoning many have long delayed.

To help museums address these challenges, this year’s edition of AAM’s annual forecasting report is free to all: download your copy here. Inside, you will find chapters devoted to:

  • Closing the Gap: Redressing systemic inequalities of wealth and power
  • Digital Awakening: Essential technologies for pandemic survival and future success
  • Who Gets Left Behind? Caring for the vulnerable in a time of crisis
  • COVID On Campus: How the pandemic is reshaping higher education
  • Strategic Foresight: How to survive an era of uncertainty

The format is designed to be practical and immediately actionable, providing a scaffold for discussions and decision-making by a museum’s staff, board, and stakeholders.

This will be a precarious year. While some museums will survive relatively intact, some will close their doors permanently, and others will emerge from the pandemic as smaller organizations with leaner ambitions. Many staff have been laid off or furloughed, and some will be forced to leave the field, either for now or forever. Despite this bleak picture, our field can emerge from this crisis stronger, wiser, and more resilient. By supporting their staff, museums will remain poised to rebound. Through the part they play in helping society respond to the pandemic, museums will demonstrate their power and relevance. By helping to build a more just and equitable world, museums will establish their role in creating a better future. And this service will make the strongest possible case to government, foundations, and communities for support of America’s museums.

This is going to be difficult, stress-filled work. To help you cope with this stress, I would like to offer this thought: in the face of massive short-term uncertainty, it can help to contemplate the very long term. (I keep a one-hundred-million-year-old fossil clam on my desk to maintain this perspective.) The earliest known museum was created by Sumerian Princess Ennigaldi-Nanna sometime around 554 BCE. Two-and-a-half millennia later, museums are still with us, having survived the rise and fall of entire civilizations. I’m confident they will be around in the year 3000 as well. They may look and feel and act very differently than today’s institutions—but they will be our clear and recognizable descendants.

I believe the most powerful thing museums can do to ensure their survival—as individual organizations and as a field—is to adopt the tools of strategic foresight. Since it was launched by the Alliance in 2009, the Center for the Future of Museums has been teaching museum people how to envision the future, and equipping museums with reports, tools, and training to help them integrate foresight into their planning. I hope you are mining this wealth of content. Please—pillage the site, make these resources your own, and use them to chart a safe path through the present storm.

My goal for this year’s report is to buoy your spirits while you confront the challenges that face museums in the coming year. I hope the questions and frameworks in each chapter provide an entry point into tackling tough topics and difficult decisions. But remember, when this work becomes overwhelming, that you need to make time to take care of yourself and others as well. When the news flooding your feeds becomes too oppressive, take a break and disconnect from the present. Tell yourself some stories about how the future could be better—and remember you have the power to help those stories come true. You’ve got this, museum people.

Yours from the future,

Elizabeth Merritt
Vice President of Strategic Foresight and Founding Director
Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

See also: 3 Takeaways for Museum Thought Leaders From This Year’s AAM TrendsWatch Report


Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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