December 28, 2016 / by Anna Leshchenko


What Does the Future of Museums Look Like?

The subject of museums has been raised for the past ten years in conferences and publications, both specialist and of general interest. A major surge in the discussion happened at the turn of the millennium, and the forecasts ranged from the museum becoming the centre of cultural exchange to the complete extinction of museum as an institution. The nuance of the predictions in the 2010s was that the question was being directed less towards the professionals working in museums and more towards the visionaries working in spheres close to the museum, and people who collaborate with museums and galleries. Unsurprisingly, thus, that the discussion panel for a discussion called ‘Is There a Future for Museums?’, held as a part of the parallel programme of the international fair of contemporary art viennacontemporary 2016, was made up of the lead thinkers not of the museum sphere, but of various leading institutions of Europe and the US.

The starting point for contemplation for the discussions was the marked tendency of disappearing borders between the real and the virtual, the physical and the digital. The question was posed as, ‘will museums still be relevant in their traditional physical space by 2050’, and the people invited to answer it were Laurent Gaveau, David A. Edwards, Luc Meier, Michael Breidenbrücker, and David Zahle – people who have a direct relationship with the world of technology and its application to exhibitions and museum projects. The participants’ remarks during the discussion can be distilled down to two main trends that define the future of museums even today.

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Conference poster ‘Is There a Future for Museums?’ © Anya Naumova, Kirill Blagodatskikh

The first trend is that despite the concerns raised by the sharp rise in the development of technology, especially the virtual space, the significance of museums will only grow each year, and not decline. In these experts’ opinions, in the world of unlimited choice and growing information streams that overload our consciousness, the museum space will be a place of attraction for everyone who seeks to return to physical contact with genuine objects. The fact that these objects have passed through a process of selection will be key. David Zahle is sure that museums will become a platform where the fewer objects are exhibited, the more valued it will become. So, as digital technology becomes more ubiquitous, the need for physical and measured interaction with select genuine objects which have passed museum selection is higher.

The second trend is the emphasis on the personal experience and impressions of each individual visitor. Museums will become a sort of a museum-lab, something that involves the visitors in an active capacity. On top of that David A. Edwards, Michael Breidenbrücker, and Laurent Gaveau stressed that against this background of active participation in museums, the near future will also see a strengthening bond between art and science. David Edwards also noted a tendency which was being spoken about for a few years and which not all museums are ready for yet: the future of museums is defined by each separate individual, and not the small circle of museum specialists. This transition from professionalism to more amateur connections has already been delineated at the end of the first decade of this century in the museum visionary Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0 and in the work of the laboratories mentioned in this this discussion – Science Gallery in Dublin, Le Laboratiorie which opened in Paris and moved to Cambridge, US and the Wellcome Collection in London. These labs are structured around a fundamentally new relationship with the visitor, showing maximum involvement, but due to lack of collections and archives they are not recognised as museums.

Birdly Project by Max Rheiner (ZHDK-Somniacs) at Le Laboratoire Cambridge 2015

Birdly simulator by Swiss artist Max Rheiner (ZHDK/Somniacs) at Le Laboratoire. 2015 © Dave Green

It is worth noting that these discussions slot into the future museum scenarios that are played out on different platforms these years: there is more and more talk of stepping away from the didactic of educational models and of growing culture of visitor participation in various spheres of museum operation. At the same time, similar ideas were being expressed as early as the 70s of the 20th century, like in the model of ‘museum as the forum’ which a lot of museums in the West, including some laboratories, arrived in the 00s.

How far ahead can the future of museums be forecasted?

The nuance of forecasting in the field of museum research is that it is split into a small amount of scientific projection and a large volume of philosophical statements. The most serious scientific forecasting is being done by two international expert organisations headquartered in the USA.

The first one is the New Media Consortium, who have been publishing an annual review called Horizon: Museum Edition that is dedicated to the adaptation of the newest digital and educational technologies for museums. The experts who work on the review won’t risk forecasting further ahead than 5 years, a point which they define as the ‘far horizon’, and limit the near horizon to 1 – 2 years. According to the latest review, in the next five years new specialisms will emerge within the traditional museum profession; in particular, a departure from the traditional paternalistic attitude of the museum towards its audience is expected, moving instead towards the principles of shared authority. With that said, the participatory practices of the last decade are expected to last only up to another two years [01].

“All three models – the temple, the forum, the activist – are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The permanent display in the museum lets one enter the temple, while a temporary exhibition can be the space for the forum or its radical version – museum as the activist. This trend is mostly noticeable in theory rather than practice, but there is a strong possibility that it will be reflected in the updated 9th definition of the concept, which will be revised by the International Council of Museums in 2019.”

Another organisation, Centre for the Future of Museums, publishes an annual review called TrendsWatch under the initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. This review differs in the fact that the experts do not track and analyse trends within the sphere of museums, but instead look at global trends in social, political, and other spheres. For instance, the 2016 review notes the eroding boundaries of work-life blending, and the growth of freelance involvement in all spheres, something that is not yet a trend in the museum sector. This trend will soon reflect in a rapid growth of independent consultant and curator involvement, and possibly in shrinkage of full-time positions within museums. Furthermore, museums will start taking all texts and objects within the collection more seriously to ensure that none of the texts offend any of the members of minority groups [02].

It is no coincidence that the most serious trend study and forecasting initiatives only form in the US. Tomislav Šola, Croatian museum thinker, opines that all trends, including ones in the museum sphere, originate in the US and then arrive to Western Europe, and then, several years later – to Eastern Europe [03]. Europe is easier to predict, but with the spread of globalisation the speed of trends spreading grows as well. In the same years when the first issues of Horizon: Museum Edition and TrendsWatch came out, the American magazine Museum-iD invited the museum community to predict the role of museums in the future for their upcoming issue [04]. However, the interest in the subject was so high it inspired the editor to start the online project #FutureMuseum, where anyone can submit a 250 – 400 word essay on the subject. One of the most interesting suggestions came from Peter Scott from the community fund of Falkirk, USA, who suggested that one could look at the museum of the future not as an institution, but as a collective process that allows people, through their understanding of the connection between the material and intangible heritage and the environment, to promote long-term wellbeing of local communities and sustainable development of the environment, both globally and locally [05]. For now, these essays are purely philosophical, but they are a representative cross-section of thought from professionals from different spheres and countries, with ideas mostly being original and unique.

Model of a museum of the future: museum as the temple, the forum, the activist

The most common and sharpest critique coming from the society and even from museum professionals themselves is aimed at the most visible part of the museum workings – exhibition activities and all forms of interaction with the visitor. One of the first critics of the traditional elitist model of the museum was the American John Cotton Dana, who wrote about the ‘new museum’ at the start of the 20th century and pointed out the isolation of the museum from the society. The process of democratisation, for which he argued, only begun after the Second World War. And yet, this process was lengthy and didn’t always catch up with changing public demand, which is why in the second half of the 20th century critical essays were published about the inability of the museum to meet the cultural needs of society.

The 1971 article by Duncan Cameron, a Canadian museologist, The Museum, a Temple or the Forum in the Curator magazine is considered a classic text which introduced the concept of museum as the forum into the museologists’ discourse. Cameron writes about the need for reform. Introducing the idea of museum as the forum, he urged to be cautious with this idea, not seeking to replace the museum as temple with this new model. The temple, according to Cameron, is the purpose of a museum, which must not be taken away because without such museums a civilized society cannot exist. At the time, the museum as temple already had a new role as a platform for discussing topical issues. At the end of the article Cameron warns museums against focussing too much on the idea of a forum, because the main role of the museum is not engaging with pressing social and political subjects [06]. Despite his warnings, those things came to pass anyway because museums arrived at these topics within the theoretical field staring at the end of the 00s, and in a practical way – since 2014.

Babi Badalov. For the wall, for the world Photo Andre Morin

Babi Badalov. For the Wall, For the World. Palais de Tokyo. 2016 © André Morin

The radicalisation of the idea of forum is noticeable in the last two years in the daring exhibition narratives and educational programmes in such famous museums as MoMA in New York, V&A in London and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Going off this trend, one can posit that museums will increasingly urge the society to think about its prejudices by organising exhibitions that draw attention on the issues of acceptance for people with limited ability and disabilities, the terminally ill and LGBTQIA+.

This trend will develop faster in art, anthropology, and history museums. The idea of a museum as an active civic agent will touch most museums to varying degrees, including narrow-profile science museums. And at that, it will be less a case of museum as the forum, reacting to the developing demand to express public opinion, but more of museum as the activist, ahead of the demand and provoking the public, posing complex moral questions about social, political, and economic realities.

Nina Simon’s book Participatory Museum (2010) is the manifesto and the validation of museum as the forum [07]. Those are no theoretical musings, but a demonstration of the changed roles and the emergence of dialogue with the visitor in museum practice. ‘Inclusive museum’, spoked on of by Richard Sandell since the end of the 90s [08], and Amareswar Galla since 2008 [09] is a case of a more active position from the museum, a fight of sorts for the museum’s right to demonstrate the position of a civic agent that freely chooses the most controversial subjects.

All three models – the temple, the forum, the activist – are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The permanent display in the museum lets one enter the temple, while a temporary exhibition can be the space for the forum or its radical version – museum as the activist. This trend is mostly noticeable in theory rather than practice, but there is a strong possibility that it will be reflected in the updated 9th definition of the museum, which will be revised by the International Council of Museums in 2019. The Council’s readiness is evidenced by the resolution it passed in 2016 on the ‘Inclusion, Intersectionality and Gender Mainstreaming in Museums’ [10].

If within the traditional model of museum as temple the majority of the rights belongs to the scientific community, who determined the message, while the visitor has almost none, but has a number of responsibilities, the museum as the forum starts granting the visitor more rights. In the near future the museum sphere will see further ‘emancipation’ of the visitor. The already emerging model of the museum as the activist takes on new qualities: with the rights of visitors continually growing in the background, the future museum becomes provocative and takes on complex discourses. The complexity, however, is different from that of the elitism of the pure museum as temple model, and is more concerned with taboo subjects. Further development of the museum as a cultural form will continue in a positive way only with adequate and equal distribution of rights and obligations between museums and their audiences.

[01] Freeman A., Adams Becker S., Cummins M., McKelroy E., Giesinger C., Yuhnke B. NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium
[02] TrendsWatch 2016, Center for the Future of Museums
[03] Sola T. Some trends and tendencies in the public memory domain // The Best in Heritage. – 2014. – Vol. 13.– PP. 126-143
[04] Museum-iD Magazine: Future of Museums. – 2011. – Vol. 10
[05] The #FutureMuseum Project: What will museums be like in the future? Essay collection
[06] Cameron F.D. The Museum, a Temple or the Forum // Curator: the Museum Journal. – 1971. – Vol. 14(1). – PP. 11–14
[07] Simon N. Participatory museum. – Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010
[08] Sandell R. Museums as Agents of Social Inclusion // Museum Management and Curatorship. – 1998. – Vol. 17, No. 4. – PP. 401–418
[09] The Inclusive Museum Research Network
[10] Resolutions adopted by ICOM’s General Assemblies in Milan, Italy, on July 9th, 2016 // ICOM-Russia, 2016. – P. 2

To cite this page:
Leshchenko, A. (2016, December 28). What does the future of museums look like? Aksenov Family Foundation. Retrieved from http://aksenovff.com/en/what-does-the-future-of-museums-look-like/.