Thinking about the future of museums: fourteen key issues
Today I participated in a Future Directions Forum at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, which after 20 years in its current location is looking to the future.
To provide some context, the Powerhouse is specifically branded as a science and design museum, implicitly being about technology and it’s impact on people’s lives. It’s worth looking at the excellent online resources section of the Powerhouse Museum website, which provides value to many people who never visit the museum. I’ve previously written abouut the very interesting Web 2.0-style initiatives of the Museum (and listed them in the Top Australian Web 2.0 applications), which among other features enables user tagging of the museum’s collection. In a number of cases visitors to the website have corrected or provided more detailed information on the museum’s collection, exemplifying how to tap collective wisdom.
The session raised many interesting questions and thoughts for me. I haven’t been significantly involved with museums in the past, and was struck by many of the issues raised. The points below represent my perspectives as well as reflections on issues raised by people at forum. While the issues below were raised in the context of museums in areas like science, technology, and design, I think they apply across most kinds of museum.
Below are fourteen key issues in the future of museums.
What is a museum?
On the face of it, a museum records and makes accessible artefacts the past that have cultural value. The curatorial process is one of showing people things that enrich them. Museums need to have a clear idea of why they exist. In most cases (in addition to any financial imperatives) the objective is to benefit society, by educating and creating culturally richer and more well-rounded members of society.
Entertainment vs. education and onto experience.
Entertainment and education are quite different intents, but they can be integrated to achieve both aims. Certainly the demand from younger people has shifted strongly to only paying attention if content is truly entertaining. Beyond that, museums are fundamentally about providing experiences. People will seek engaging and powerful experiences, and if museums can provide them, their can fulfil their roles.
Complement formal education.
Recent developments of school and adult education have not kept pace with external change. There is in particular an important role for experiences that help prepare people for the future.
Speed of response.
Exhibitions are a slow medium, often taking 6 months or far more to put together. This means that any exhibit will be historical rather than truly contemporary. As people grow used to a faster informational cycle, ways of bringing together information quickly in a meaningful way is often required to engage people.
Being credible and authoritative.
In a world of infinite information, people are looking for credible sources. The brand and identity of a museum can assist in being a preferred source of information.
Physical vs. Virtual.
A museum is in almost all cases a physical space with physical exhibits. Yet access can also be provided online, including in three dimensional worlds. It is not a question of choosing between them, or even doing both. Rather the issue is how to integrate both physical and virtual so they complement each other.
Potential for geolocational tagging.
As a specific form of integrating the physical and virtual, I think geolocation is a very useful technology. This can for example enable visitors to geo-tag exhibits, making their comments visible to others moving through the physical space. Video glasses or mobile devices can allow people to pick up on and add to conversations about what they are seeing and interacting with.
Engaging younger generations.
Today schoolchildren going on a museum visit often do their reports by typing notes and taking pictures on their mobile phone. However they are far from passive consumers, and unless you allow them to be active in engaging with content, you will lose them.
Getting museum experts to interface directly with users.
The existing interface between the knowledge of the museum staff and users is the exhibit. Social media and social networks are ways to enable this more direct connection, interaction, and knoweldge sharing.
Energizing the community.
Because museums touch so many schoolchildren, they have an opportunity to engage them far beyond their visits. MIT’s ThinkCycle, which takes an open source approach to designing solutions to problems thaat touch many underprivileged people.
Helping people to answer new and important questions.
Therapeutical cloning, genetically modified food, embryonic genetic modification, are all new technologies that we as individuals and a society must work out how to respond. A museum can help people to understand these issues to help people to make up their own minds in an informed way.
Moving from gatekeepers to enabling access and building communities.
Not so long ago museums were essentially gatekeepers, choosing from all of the wonderful things they have access to, which will be on display. Now that access can be provided digitally, the issue becomes more one of making these valuable resources more accessible and visible, and building communities to share perspectives.
Museums as media organizations.
During the discussions it struck me that museums are basically media organizations, providing and editing (i.e. curating) content. Exactly the same issues apply, including that of whether to control or open out the editorial process.
From interacting with exhibits to interacting with people.
A great interactive exhibit is one that makes people visiting the museum to interact with each other. There are many fabulous technologies that can take the old push-button style of interactive exhibits into an entirely new dimension. However building live and asynchronous social networks on many levels is really where interactivity needs to go. Both stimulating and enabling conversations is where museum interactivity needs to go.
I think the issues facing museums are extremely interesting, and relevant across a far broader domain, as they fundamentally deal with the intersection of the virtual and physical in our experiences. Despite the rise of the virtual, there is extraordinary value in physical artefacts. To move into the future we absolutely need to understand and draw on our past. Physical objects are the crystallized manifestations of our collective thoughts and history. Museums are on an extraordinary journey which will see many thrive, and often look very different to how they do today.