Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb

Last week I was in Stockholm to give a talk on 'Museum Crowdsourcing Games: Improving Collections Through Play (and some thoughts on re-inventing museums)'.  Again, my thanks to @kajsahartig and @nordiskamuseet for the invitation to speak, and to all the lovely people I met for sharing their own stories with me, and for listening to a talk in English. The quote of the day came from @charlotteshj during a panel discussion on museums and innovation at the end of the day: digital museum collections should be 'shareable, spreadable and nerd-friendly'.

Based on what I learnt about the audience I ended up including more explanatory material on museum crowdsourcing games and didn't really have time for the 're-inventing museums' bits, so I thought I'd share those notes here.  It's still very much a work-in-progress but since there are so many smart people thinking about the same subject, it's worth sharing for comment… (Also because Jasper Visser, who is also thinking about the future of museums, asked me what I was going to say. Btw, Jasper's #kulturwebb talk inspired the whole room, watch the video on his post about it.)

I know the future of museums lies in fitting into people's lives as well as being a destination; being the cathedral and being in the bazaar. Cultural heritage needs to be 'out there' to help people value and make time for visits the physical place.  It's about new types of engagement and outreach. It's not all digital, but as the world is networked and mobile and social, we should be too.

I was thinking about new metaphors for museums – what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

But I realised that the answer to the question of the future of museums is deeply personal to any museum, because museums exist in the intersection of their collections, their fans and their local audiences. This is good, because it means you can apply your existing knowledge about what your audiences love about you.  The answer to the question 'what would your museum be if it was invented in 2011?' is up to you…

Every time I approach the question of the future of museums, or of how the future of museums will be informed by what's happening the world today, I seem to come at it from a different angle. Today I'm wondering about the implications of the fact that there are no (g-rated) offline activities anymore – people will do almost anything with their mobile in one hand, and could be doing anything from googling to find out more about the museum object in front of them to looking up the lyrics of that one-hit wonder from that summer they went camping with friends.  Their head could be in any space as well as in your space.

I'm also thinking about outreach, whether improving wikipedia articles, snippets of local history on the back of pub toilet doors or putting a museum exhibition in a truck and taking it to kids in the outer suburbs.  Tomorrow I'll wake up with some new 'what if?' in my head. And I'm curious – what are you thinking about the future of museums?

6 thoughts on “Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb”

  1. Hi Mia, I think it would be a lot of fun and very inspirational to do a session about this topic one day. Say: 8-15 people each take a position, such as "the museum of the future is like Amazon". And then, in a discussion, we try to see which elements work and which ones don't. Might be really nice to work this out.

    I'd take the position that the museum of the future is an approachable rock star; inspirational, artistic, creative and out there. And some other stuff, I guess.

  2. That's a great idea! It'd work much better as a conversation than a monologue, or a series of posts across different blogs.

    I wonder if there's any way to actually do it – it doesn't seem fair to wait a whole year until MW2012 or something!

  3. Ha. Jasper, I thought the whole point of rock stars is that they are in no way approachable… though I like your view of the museum as inspirational and creative.

    Mia – there has to be a way of getting the conversations happening. Maybe a series of unconferences in different countries focused on some key themes – ie, let's design a museum from scratch… what do you do?!?

    But who would you ask? Who do you entrust with redesigning the museum? The community? The museum sector? The people who already use museums online, or those don't yet but maybe would if they felt a connection and reason for engagement?

    I'm sure some people I know would be absolutely against opening the museum up to be 'shaped' by the 'uninitiated'. Others would see that same thing as being crucial. But that schism would impact the way people envision or revision what a museum is and what it should be. And, thinking out loud, I wonder how different the results would be if the discussion was split between who have embraced the web in their general life vs those who haven't. Most musueum/web types seem to be all for openness and inclusion in the museum – for finding better ways of connecting and interacting. But I'm not sure that attitude would be true of the sector as a whole (particularly in art museums), so I wonder how disparate the results would be. Hmm.

  4. Suse – your questions have made me realise that the first question is probably 'what's the point?' – what impact would the discussion have? Or is it just something for museum technologists to have fun debating without any expectation of creating change in the sector?

    I guess the urgency of the conversation varies depending on funding and national contexts, but there's a real sense in the UK that museums are slipping down the list of national priorities and may be doomed if people don't find them relevant enough to protest about closures. (Of course, the situation is very different if you're a big national museum than if you're a small, specialist or local museum.)

    A note I wrote during a conversation with people before the kulturwebb event in Sweden says "museums now must be like sharks, if they don't keep swimming they'll die".

    I wonder if some art museums don't feel the need to be relevant because they can point to their value as 'high culture'? Social and local history museums don't have that luxury (or the snob value).

  5. Yeah Mia, it's interesting. Your "what's the point?" question really highlights the differences in my own experiences working within this field.

    When I am around other museum technologists (nice term), the conversations are always big existential things about how/what and for whom the museum should be, and how we can make it more effective, and better able to serve its community etc. They are exciting conversations, filled with big questions and big ideas… like the ones asked on your blog, or in unconference sessions at MW2011. The answers aren't always there – but I'm not always sure that's the point.

    But then I compare this experience to my work in museums at the other end of the scale, and I can honestly say that very few people seem to be thinking about these issues, much less expecting that the answer might actually be able to change something.

    It's one reason why MW2011 was so exciting for me. It was the first time I'd ever really come across other people who were wrestling with the same questions I have been.

    So is it all just fun debating and shouting across the ether to no effect? Realistically, I do think it has a greater purpose than that, and I am sure that by having these conversations we can effect some change – but I wonder whether the people who are asking the questions are representative of the field as a whole…

    On your last point, as someone who works at an art museums, I think it's terrible that we can even consider justifying our purpose simply because we are 'high culture' – although I don't deny that it happens.

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