Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Crystal Balls

Beth Merritt, Director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, has been looking for people to do video interviews about their ideas for the future of museums. I was bold enough to volunteer (but not so bold as to give you the link to where the video is posted, although it's not hard to find). Anyway, Beth sent me a list of questions for the interview and being lazy I thought I’d also use them as the basis of a PoH post.

1. What will be the next generation’s experience of museums? How is this different from your experience as a child?

The museums that I visited as a child growing up in Britain in the 1970s were object-rich in a way that few modern displays seem to be. But they were also very static – there were very few interactives, and certainly no video screens. Also, the delivery of information was essentially one-way – the museum knew the truth and had chosen to communicate it to the visitor. By-and-large we still do this – we might ask more questions of visitors, but we rarely feed their answers back into the display or communicate them to other visitors. In a world of Wikis, blogs, social networking, and other user-generated content we’ll no longer be able to do that.

The other major difference when I was growing up was that to experience a museum, you had to actually go and visit it. Now, of course, there are ways in which you can experience museums and their collections without ever leaving your armchair. It’s sometimes hard to remember what a world without the Web felt like, but it’s not that long ago (which is one reason why making predictions about the future is such a risky business and is best left to a museum ninja like Beth).

2. What are the most important trends in society that will shape museums in the next 25 years?

Obviously changing demographics are bound to have an effect. At the moment, we tend to have an attitude in museums that there is an excluded portion of society that we have a responsibility to reach out to. It’s a well-meaning, but rather paternalistic stance and I’m not sure how it will hold up when some of the categories of people that we define as “excluded” form a majority of the population.

We also have a tendency, subconscious or otherwise, to regard museum visitation as one of the hallmarks of a well-educated, well-rounded member of society. I don’t know how well that assumption holds up if most people rarely if ever visit museums.

3. Are there kinds of museums that will be extinct in 2033? Will new kinds arise?

I actually don’t think any kinds of museum will become “extinct,” as there seems to be a growing, and possibly endless variety of “niche interests” that museums can address. Even museums that would have been regarded as hopelessly outdated a decade or so back can now be marketed as a sort of retro museum experience. The question is more likely to be how many individual museums will become extinct, as the “heritage” market gets more crowded.

4. What is the role of the virtual versus the real in museums in the future? Will that change the way that museums collect?

The line between the virtual and the real is getting increasingly blurred. There are many kinds of collection, like the American Museum of Natural History’s Astrophysics collection, that exist only as data – an example of this sort of virtual object would be the dataset generated from running a large scale computer simulation of, say, two galaxies colliding. You run your simulation, archive the data, catalog it, and store it. It’s a specimen, but it’s not necessarily an object.

Then there’s the issue of reproduction. In my own field of paleontology, we already have laser scanners that can capture 3-D information about fossils. That data can be fed to a 3-D “printer” – a milling machine – and used to generate an exact replica of the fossil at any scale you want. The ability to capture surface detail is getting better with each successive generation of scanner and eventually they’ll be able to capture color and texture as well.

Now, suppose you go 25 years into the future and this technology has become so cheap that anyone can use it, even at home. You could go to a museum website (or whatever takes the place of websites in the 2030s), download a package of data, and run off a perfect replica of a specimen. Now you have a virtual museum experience that you can actually hold in your hand. This may sound farfetched, but you can already purchase 3-D scan data for some specimens - take a look here.

Will we still collect? Yes, because otherwise how do we find new stuff that advances science. But if we can reproduce specimens with almost perfect accuracy, will we still value the real thing? And will we still invest in looking after it?

5. Is the role of museums with respect to authority changing? What is the future role of the audience in contributing to the generation of content?

Well, Wikipedia wasn’t the end of civilization as we know it. There’s huge potential in letting people have some measure of ownership and participation in the museums that are, after all, part of their shared property. The skill comes in setting the rules – how and where and when you can contribute. You need to have some measure of control without becoming oppressive. And that’s what museums should be thinking about now. There’s a great post by Nina Simon on Museum 2.0 that discusses this.

6. What is the future of the economics of running and supporting a museum?

I think it’s important not to get too fixated on the current state of the economy – we are, after all, trying to look into the more distant future. If we go back to my earlier point about the nature of real vs. virtual objects, and about the extent to which technology may be able to duplicate the experience of visiting a museum in your own home (perhaps even including physical contact with objects), I guess one question is will we be able to justify spending money on public galleries, with their high staffing and operating costs. Could you have a museum that was just collections storage, where all of the public access was done remotely? And we in collections shouldn’t feel at all smug about this prospect, because if we can capture, store, and retrieve objects digitally, will we want to spend money on dealing with the real thing? The one thing that we’ve all experienced over the past few years is that collections grow but collections staffing does not.

7. What do museums have to do in the future to maintain the public trust?

OK, now I am going to talk about current events. If you give something of great value to a museum, because you want to share it with a wider audience for example, you need to have a reasonable expectation that the museum will look after that item in a responsible manner, and that it will go to the wall before selling it on the open market. And as we’ve seen, for some institutions, that isn’t the case.

Anyway, those are just my opinions. If you feel strongly about the future of museums, speak up. Beth is looking for more interviewees and you can find out more about CFM and its mission here.

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