Extreme Museum Makeover
Royal Ontario Museum. Source: Wikimedia. Photo: Gisling.
Centre for the Future of Museums, The Museum of 20??, 1 July 2015
One great thing about having a growing circle of future-oriented peeps is that we swap and share opportunities to engage in future-think. This past spring I had to turn down an invitation to join a fabulous group of people to discuss my favourite topic, and suggested that Adam Rozan slot into the panel in my place. But (I told Adam) he owed me a detailed account of what happened! Adam in turn recruited his fellow panellists to summarize their remarks, and today on the blog I share their debrief with you.
In March, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) asked its audiences and a group of panelist to think about and discuss the future of museums. The program was entitled Extreme Museum Makeover: The Future of Museums. The panel featured Xerxes Mazda, deputy director of engagement at ROM (Mazda left ROM in April to become the director of collections at the National Museum of Scotland); Peter J. Kim, executive director of the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City; David C. Evans, chair of vertebrate palaeontology at the ROM; Joseph Loh, managing museum educator at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (Loh is now the director of public programs and engagement at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City); Nancy Proctor, deputy director for digital experience and communications at the Baltimore Museum of Art; and me, Adam Rozan, director of audience engagement at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.
The following are the reflections of the panelists to the question raised that night: what is the future for museums?
Adam Rozan: Museums of the future will fill a void in the modern, tech-saturated, digitally filtered world. Just like today, they will stretch our imaginations and continue to provide us with the opportunity to interact with each other, to reflect on our past and to contemplate our (future) present. But they will also try to meet our evolving needs, which will likely revolve around physically connecting with others(a future rarity) and enjoying highly customized experiences. The museum of the future will be a dynamic place, able to shift its offerings instantaneously to satisfy the interests and preferences of each visitor, and his or her digital avatar.
My hope is that the role museums will take on in our communities will come full circle and they will become the center of people’s lives again, because people – stuck behind screens – will need a physical center.
They’ll function as community and civic centers, co-working spaces, hubs of activity, of eating and drinking, of socializing and learning -– all of this happening around the art and objects and history of which museums will remain trusted guardians.
Xerxes Mazda, Ph.D: Do history museums collect in a way that will allow historians in the future to use collections to write histories of the world? The answer is obviously ‘no’. I predict that in the future, as museums become more aware of the cost of caring for collections, they will increasingly collaborate with each other, and with other types of institutions including manufacturers and retailers, to build national collections. To take one tiny aspect of a collection to illustrate this point (and I recognise that this is one very small way that collections can be used to write histories). To what extent can historians today use the furniture preserved in international collections to write histories of furniture used by Canadians in 1967? The answer is obviously ‘not very well’. With the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation coming up in 2017, how could we be working together now, to ensure that our joint collections can represent the world of furniture in Canada in 2017 to historians in 2117?
Joseph Loh, Ph.D: It was a great experience to be in Toronto, to meet everyone, and to participate in the ROM panel event! Talking about vision and museums of the future is a tricky thing. Xerxes is right in stating that we learn a lot more about the present when we try to peer into the future and foresee what may come. Today, we live in a time of shifting demographics, changing social behaviors, and emerging forms of technology that connect and empower people in ways unimaginable even a few years ago. The traditional notion of the museum’s role and purpose needs to be reconsidered.
So if we’re talking about vision and the museum of the future, I think we first need to consider a museum’s identity. A place like the Metropolitan Museum is a good example. It’s one of the world’s great art museums and one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions. It has a calendar of exhibitions that rivals—maybe even surpassing— any of the other big museums anywhere in the world. In this sense, Met staff are lucky to have such strengths and to be in a position to provide our audiences with great encounters with works of art. But this isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. With 6.2 million people visiting and nearly 40 exhibitions and rotations of the collection annually, we’re always hard pressed to ensure that the visitor experience is meaningful, impactful, and enjoyable. So to guide our work, our vision has been—and will likely remain—to focus on our collection, scholarship and expertise, working to connect to audiences to inspire engagement with our activities, and ensuring that staff work in an environment which promotes excellence and efficiency.
All of this is very easy for me to write in this blog but, believe me, it’s not easy to do. Each museum needs to understand and leverage its strengths. Staff need to know what they can bring and offer to visitors. They also need to know and identify with their communities, whether it be the person who through the main doors or, increasingly, engages with the museum online from at home. So what do you all think?
David C. Evans, Ph.D: The world is becoming increasingly complex. Scientists are making discoveries at an unparalleled rate, and globalization continues to increase cultural interconnectivity. Research-based museums, such as the Royal Ontario Museum, occupy an important niche in our dynamic and information-rich societies that will become more relevant in the future. Museums sit at the nexus between pure academics and broader communities, and museums are therefore important sources of authoritative, nuanced, and accurate information about complex contemporary issues. In contrast to universities, museums and their content experts are more accessible to the community, and a public-facing museum can play an important role in interpreting these complex issues to a broader audience.
At least for the big museums, the ability to thrive in this niche is dependent on employing a body of curators who are actively engaged in academic research; Curators must be on the cutting edge in their fields in order to stay relevant in discussions of contemporary scientific and cultural issues, and ensure that museums provide the most up-to-date and accurate and information to our communities. However, the role of a curator is changing dramatically, and curators will need to be hired on the basis of both scholarly excellence and effective communication and engagement skills to maximize the relevance of museums in the future.
Research also plays an important role in what I would argue is the most fundamental function of a museum- the maintenance and growth of collections for research. Museums form a global network of collections that are vital to documenting the continuing history of the planet, the life it supports, and human culture. Collections serve as markers of where we have been, which lets us assess where we are now. These collections form the foundation of many scientific and cultural studies, and through continually providing research access to collections on a long-term basis, make these studies repeatable and allow us to build upon our collective human knowledge. Continuing to expand museum collections is therefore vital to human progress on a global scale. Curators ensure that collections are growing in strategic ways that enhance understanding of contemporary issues in science and culture, while at the same time making sure collections will be useful to future generations of scholars who want to understand how our world has evolved, and where it is going in the future.
Peter J. Kim: I see two trends for the museum of the future. First, it will have no walls. In the literal sense, it will reach beyond its brick-and-mortar home to bring its programming into its constituent communities. In the figurative sense, it will defy formal boundaries that have traditionally distinguished, say, art museums from science centers. As always, it will tell important stories, but it will do so in an increasingly cross-disciplinary fashion, using art, historical collections, interactive exhibits, and sensory immersion as storytelling tools.
Second, as information becomes more diffuse and accessible, the museum of the future will at once be more relevant than ever, and more challenged to prove its relevance than ever. Museums that merely replicate what is already available on the internet will fade away; they will be irrelevant. The museum of the future will need to take an untamed world of information and–better than any website, better than any book–bring compelling narratives to life by shaping, guiding, curating, and synthesizing that cacophony. By meeting this challenging test, the museum of the future has the potential to be stronger than it ever was before.
Nancy Proctor, Ph.D: If it is hard to distinguish current trends from future probabilities, it is even harder to separate one’s aspirations for museums in the future from valid predictions. With Modernism came a belief in progress and an insatiable consumer desire for the new and innovative. Both subject to this ideology and in defiance of it, I hope the museum of the future will exist in a new era of citizenship that goes beyond participation to recognize an expanded – rather than enlightened – sense of self and self-interest that includes collections as well as communities.
In this brave new business model people will not support the museum out of a sense that it’s good for them, or for society, and much less out of a sense of noblesse oblige. Rather the museum like other civic and memory institutions is a part of their identity, and they a part of it. This model takes our current ideas of “engagement” and “accessibility” to a whole new level, and is one that sheds new light on the proliferation of museums we’ve seen globally and online in recent decades: they will continue become increasingly diverse and specialized, like the communities of the Internet. I hope also like these new forms of discourse, museums in the future will be deeply effective as well as intellectually rigorous and fearless.
These comments speak to the many challenges and changes that are already underway. Please share your thoughts and examples of change you’re seeing.