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3 Takeaways for Museum Thought Leaders From This Year’s AAM TrendsWatch Report

The topics explored in this year’s report offer an opportunity to analyze an alternative future for the museum sector.

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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Each year, the Center for the Future of Museums (a subdivision of the American Alliance of Museums) publishes a report with the main museum market trends for the year called TrendsWatch. In the past, these reports focused on the advent of new technologies and organizational changes. I’ve been interviewed by AAM’s resident futurist Elizabeth Merritt for previous reports about blockchain and virtual reality to analyze how these trends could impact museums.

The topics explored in this year’s report offer an opportunity to analyze an alternative future for the museum sector. In TrendsWatch, Merritt often postulates interesting “could be” scenarios for the museum world and helps museums think about how to prepare.

No one could have predicted what would happen in 2020, and as a result, the trends highlighted within the report for museums in 2021 move into what I would call “softer,” maybe even philosophical, territory. Though sustainability development goals such as decolonization, homelessness and self-care were already featured in the 2019 TrendsWatch report, for example, this year the real emphasis shifts to restructuring but also empathy.

Here are three takeaways for museum thought leaders from this year’s report.

Inequality is actually about power, and that is the power to give and take.

Each of the report’s sections begins with a series of critical questions. The first question in the first theme is “Who has your organization taken assets/power from?” The museum industry, rooted in collecting practices from centuries ago, grapples with this issue.

Consider the repatriation of artifacts looted from other cultures and the misrepresentation of cultures other than one’s own. The clearest illustration of the museum classification problem: Why were/are the history of certain cultures considered “primitive” and grouped with natural history collections rather than fine art collections? In 2020’s Brutish Museums, Dan Hicks helps readers gain a clearer picture of European museums with “colonial blood” on their hands.

These issues have been discussed at length, with improvements underway. But the power to give and take stuck with me while reading this section of TrendsWatch. Western museums still own the power to decide what to give and take. The actions suggested in the report still empower these existing systems by asking the museum to take responsibility and ownership of the exchanges within its walls.

What counterforce allows for a real accessible infrastructure of economic and cultural exchange? It requires letting go and releasing a stronghold over the power to give and take. I don’t know if the existing Western museums that power the sector would be willing to entertain that concept.

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Is timing everything for the sector’s tech adoption?

Despite talking about digital innovation in virtually every edition of TrendsWatch, tech featured the most on museums’ agendas in 2020, once the doors to the physical buildings closed. Some senior members of the industry may be taking this “digital” issue seriously for the first time.

The report rightly states that it is likely that museums will look at hybrid models in future, having learned from the digital offerings they produced in 2020-2021, but also knowing that people will be keen to go back to “real-life” experiences as soon as possible. What I mentioned in my last article, and also is mentioned here, is that the sector may benefit from its reluctance to embrace technology up to Web 2.0. With a relatively clean slate, this might be the right time to develop a tech offering. But I reiterate that the strategy needs to be embraced by the entire industry rather than being the tactics of a few individuals. The strategy does not need to be expensive — something that TrendsWatch potentially brushes over.

More important than developing digital tools, this report highlights the importance of developing digital literacy, especially within senior leadership. The section is called “Digital Awakening,” and I read this as a call for museum leaders to wake up. This does not mean that leaders need to know what every technology can do. It is about being savvy enough about digital offerings to incorporate them in the museum’s development.

While we’re all locked down at home, perhaps our leaders could take this time to wrap their heads around Web 3.0 and its potential.

Museums can plan for uncertainty, but it relies on management analyzing a wide variety of scenarios.

The last section of TrendsWatch explores what to do when you don’t know what the outlook looks like. That is a very real scenario right now. U.K. museum directors I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks are describing such uncertainty that they’ve just left their calendars blank after May 2021, depending on when venues are allowed to reopen again. Simultaneously, I’ve spoken to other London museum directors who are assuming that exhibitions will reopen in late April.

All of these scenarios are possible, and TrendsWatch suggests that you think through all of them. Planning relates to the immediate future — for example, having a plan whether venues in your locality reopen or are locked down again — but also the longer term. By thinking through what could happen and the organization’s position in those outcomes, management will also be able to choose which scenario is the best and what they want to lobby for.

Based on my takeaways, the museum sector should aim to reflect on inequality and the give and take of power, pause to consider potential value-add digital offerings, and plan for an uncertain future in the meantime.


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