Thursday, November 7, 2013

Museums in the Future: A View from Across the Pond

I was originally going to feature the report “Museums in a Digital Age” from Arups’ Foresight + Research + Innovation thinktank in a Futurist Friday post, but I try to confine the recommendations in that series to short bites of reading or viewing that can be consumed during lunchtime or a break.

At 40 pages, this report doesn’t make that cut, but it is well worth settling down with for a longer read.

The report explores three major trends: Content diversification, immersive experiences, and sustainable & open spaces. Many of its observations echo the themes CFM has explored in the last two years of TrendsWatch, and it is interesting to see a fresh take and different perspective on the same data.

Arup projects that museums will diversify their content in response to:

  • A rising desire among audiences to shape their own cultural experiences (“Collaborative Curation”)
  • Shifting cultural attitudes about what topics or issues are important and relevant
  • The DIY/Maker movement and attendant technologies like 3D printing that let visitors get their hands on museum materials (digitally speaking)
  • The opportunity for museum to become “curators of experiences” that extend beyond the boundaries of traditional exhibits or programs, or beyond the walls of the museum itself.

The report notes the rise in immersive experiences, including hybrid mashups of physical and digital environments. It points to:

  • The blurring of identity between formerly distinct formats such as museums, libraries, shops, restaurants, galleries.
  • The interplay or competition between physical and virtual experiences
  • The potential for data collection and analytics to create “smart environments” that provide interactive & personalized experiences
  • The ability of museums to use mobile technology to untether their content from a particular place and time.
Sustainable & open spaces looks at museums' role in placemaking in our increasingly dense and urban world, including

  • The need for climate-ready design, responding to forces ranging from energy conservation to the role of museums in stewardship of animals or ecosystems threatened by climate change
  • The rise of green design
  • Museums as a place to integrate new communities into the social fabric of a city
The second section of the report focuses on future audiences. Most surprising, to me, was their tagging of the “expanding global middle class.” Having heard so much about the endangered middle class in the US, I was interested to learn that according to the UN, the global middle class will expand to 3 billion people by 2020 (mostly in developing countries—that makes sense.) The report also notes the need for museums to identify the needs of niche (“target group”) audiences, such as providing expanded hours to serve working professionals who may want to hit the museum after a long day at the office.


In addition to their own trends forecasting, Arup challenged students at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London to describe how specific UK museums have adapted to the future in 2040. The resulting scenarios describe how:

  • Kew Gardens becomes a place of temporary respite from a toxic mega-city
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum, its collections depleted by massive repatriation, becomes a travel & tourism guide and international affairs ambassador in an increasingly globalized community
  • The Wallace Collection, along with the rest of society, largely migrates into the digital realm
  • The Freud Museum, in the spirit of its namesake, becomes a provider of mental retreat and therapy (I wonder if the docents will be licensed psychoanalysis?)
I hope this summary intrigues you enough that you read the whole report. 

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