Elizabeth Merritt on the Future of Museums

While the next era of education might seem uncertain for some, but for women like Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director at the Center for the Future of Museums, have a clear-cut idea of what it will look like. She believes that museums play a vital role in the learning landscape, and she foresees them becoming increasingly interactive over time. Not only will museums extend beyond their physical confines and continue to develop compelling digital content – by 2050, Elizabeth envisions museums becoming technologically advanced sites where children will be able to participate in the history they’re learning. “You think some kids are dinosaur-obsessed now? Wait until they can spend their play time helping a curator on her latest paleo dig in Outer Mongolia, or even 3D printing the most recently catalogued species!”

What role do you imagine the museum will play in 2030? What about 2100?

I think museums, collectively, will play a lot of different roles, just as they do now: repositories of art, history, and science; places of reflection and remembrance; community hubs; social spaces and catalysts in the creative economy.

I think one important role that may be much bigger than it is now will be that of museums acting as a vital component in the educational landscape.

There seems to be a consensus, among both futurists and educational reformers, that we are on the cusp of transformative change in the US educational system, particularly in what is now tagged as P-12. (Though note that age-based “grades” are one of the many elements of the current system being called into question). No one knows exactly what the next era of education will look like, but when you ask people to characterize the direction we’re moving in, certain descriptors come up repeatedly: passion-based, self-directed, personalized, hands-on, experiential. Well guess what? Those adjectives describe the kind of learning experiences museums provide now. I imagine that by the turn of the next century, we may have moved toward a distributed learning system – one in which children have a lot of options for when, where and how they learn, and one in which they can draw on a network of learning resources embedded in their communities and via the web. Museums will be vital parts of the learning landscape – both as physical spaces and as providers of compelling digital content.

Will the museum of the future vary across the globe?

Given that museums in different countries are starting from such different baselines today, I think the answer is most likely yes. Here in the US, anyone can start a nonprofit museum (and many, many people do). But at this same point in time, Saudi Arabia is working to open what I believe is the first museum and the first public library, in that country. How do you explain to people from a culture that has not traditionally had museums (or public libraries) what these entities are, and what they do? Much of what museums do is shaped by their funding, and in many countries, they are almost entirely funded by the government. In these countries, museums – especially national museums – are principally seen as agents of the state; they deliver an “official” version of history and culture.

In the US, where funding is much more varied, many museums are inherently subversive. They use public, nonprofit platform to challenge the dominant cultural paradigm, and explore hidden or underrepresented aspects of society. Many large museums are currently pushing to make their collections and other resources freely available as digital open content. Other museums are starting as purely online institutions. These museums (or their digital reflections) can be truly global in reach. So one issue for the future is access – will there be countries that prevent their citizens from engaging with museums as online forums for learning and exchange?

Will we experience art differently in 2030? 2100? What will be the role of the artist in the future?

One of the trends I’ve been keeping my eye on is the rise of augmentative technology, whether in the form of wearable devices or cybernetic implants. Self-described cyborg Neil Harbisson, for example, helped invent an antenna that is implanted in his skull, enabling him to “hear” light in the visible and non-visible spectra through bone conduction. Neil gave a TED talk in which he describes what it is like to visit an art museum and “hear” the paintings.

As more and more people augment their senses – vision, hearing, touch – how will that change how humanity experiences traditional visual and performing art?

How will artists and museums, adapt to audiences that experience the world in ways formerly outside the spectrum of human ability? As with any world-changing trend, one of the roles for museums today is to introduce new concepts to people, help them explore new technologies in a safe, trusted environment, and to foster hard discussions about how societal norms should change over time.

How did the funding model change for the art ecosystem (e.g. artist, museums, galleries)?

The traditional sources of museum funding are pretty narrow: earned income through admissions, retail, food service, space rentals etc.; contributions from individuals, corporations or foundations; government funding, whether local, state or federal; and income from the endowment (if the museum is lucky enough to have an endowment). All of these revenue streams are under threat: government funding in particular has declined steadily over the past few decades, and dropped precipitously as the tax base crashed at beginning of the global recession of 2008. I think that in coming decades museums are going to build new sources of income that integrate mission-delivery with earned income. We can see bits of this future now. For example, a handful of art museums have created business accelerators-cum-co-working spaces that support the local arts/tech entrepreneurial community. They are both helping to grow the local economy and build their own sustainable business model around some of the profits generated by this activity.

Philanthropy and government support is also changing, as donors and government funders begin to expect measurable proof of the impact of their support. Increasingly, private donors and foundations want evidence of how a museum improves educational outcomes, contributes to wellbeing or otherwise advances the patron’s goals. In coming decades, social impact bond funding for government services may become more common. Rather than receiving support as de facto social benefits, museums may be invited to prove they are saving local or state governments money by reducing recidivism, boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancies, or improving public health. On the other hand, in an era of rising income inequality, we will see some museums relying more on individual wealthy patrons. These museums, characterizing what some have called the New Gilded Age, will have more freedom to operate higher up Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. But this support may have the side effect of making these museums less responsive to the needs or desires of the broader population.

Elizabeth Merritt
Center for the Future of Museums

Describe the museum experience you would want to create in 2050.

The museum experience I envision for 2050 isn’t confined within the walls of a building. It is ubiquitous, distributed, and integrated into daily life. I think AI will play a major part, with AI devices drawing heavily on the vast collective museum databases. You think some kids are dinosaur-obsessed now? Wait until they can spend their playtime helping a curator at her latest paleo dig in Outer Mongolia, or even 3D printing the most recently catalogued species. Museums could be some of the best places to match students with mentors, to give them hands-on projects, and to get them started on a path of original research and publication.

Museums can help curate the world for grown-ups, too. In the future, augmented reality devices could help adults explore both their own neighborhoods and new places when they travel. Artists and entrepreneurs could use museum open data as the raw materials for their work, and museums could provide the technical and content expertise to help people catalog and share more things than could ever be included in any museum’s own collections. The Internet of Things (IoT) will enable the documentation of archaeological sites and artifacts around the world, and an IoT-powered global family archive could mean that historians could capture stories that would have been lost in the past.

But physical museums, from art museums to zoos, will remain important as well. As they continue to improve, museums can act as a form of respite and retreat from everyday stress, digital overload, and traumatic events.

Do I think we’re on track to make this future real by 2050? You bet.

the author

Erika Streisfield

Erika Streisfield is an editorial intern at Idea Couture.