That's a hard question, and there are a lot of theories out there . . .
We sat down with Michelle Linder from the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) to get her take on the subject. Michelle, a temporary and touring exhibitions coordinator, with nearly two decades of museum know-how, has her own temporary gig with us at Smithsonian traveling exhibitions. For a few months, she's helping us interrogate potential exhibition topics while developing more streamlined processes for turning those ideas into real exhibits. Midway through our conversation, we started talking about challenges--not just the challenges of building exhibitions but the challenges museums face in a rapidly changing world.
Some believe obstacles are predominantly financial or related to an inability to fully embrace the digital age. However, in Michelle's eyes, the museum of the future can't exist without a purposeful effort to connect with the wider community and provide a space for multiple perspectives. "Museum staff are adept at sharing information and knowledge about their collections in the exhibition format," she admits, "but one area where museums can do more is by being more outward facing and making contact with people and organisations that may not initially seem a natural fit. Numerous museums have youth advisory panels for the development of exhibitions, but do they consider approaching senior citizens or members of diverse communities to participate in user testing of interactive exhibits? What about business leaders, are they only approached when fundraising is required? Do museums ensure their services are listed in brochures, websites and material produced for new residents in their particular community?"
Telling stories and displaying collection material beyond your own museum site takes effort, but Michelle believes it is a logistical challenge most museum staff are perfectly capable of carrying out. "By mounting small scale exhibitions in unconventional spaces such as hospital waiting rooms, public transport facilities, shopping centres, jails and outdoor spaces, the museum may reach people that may otherwise never walk in their doors," she theorizes. "Efforts to reach wider audiences may not always be successful and are not for the risk averse, but they may result in a greater understanding of the value of the museum and its services in the community."
How DO we tell stories that include all audiences? Or at the very least, how do we convey stories that are interesting to diverse audiences? There are no absolute answers here, but Michelle and her team in Australia have gone a long way to start presenting content from multiple points of view, even when those interpretations aren't popular. In 2014, the ANMM hosted Whale Season which consisted of numerous events, two exhibitions and hosting a vessel operated by an anti-whaling organization. Visitors were presented with detailed information about 'cetaceans' as a species, the history of the whaling industry, the anti-whaling movement in Australia and given information about the different methods of preventing whaling in the southern ocean.
"One thing we're constantly thinking about is how to get stories out there beyond those people who are already listening to us on social media, beyond our members, beyond those who are already attending our events," said Michelle. "We want to get everyone involved, including people who might not have like-minded perspectives. We need to expand to incorporate diverse opinions, not just the ones that complement us."
This may be the new content obligation of museums as well--agnostic of politics and trends--narrating or curating stories that provide a 360-degree dissection of a topic. Going along with that is the modern mandate for personalization as opposed to a one-size fits-all experience. Michelle described her future fantasy museum as a multi-faceted space that resembled a store or shopping area, with patrons walking and pulling items off the shelves for tactile inspection. Even in the not-so-distant future, 3-D printing could make this browsing museum an easy reality, but the point is personal discovery, hands-on inspection, and the ability to connect with objects and the stories associated with their production, use and history.
While she believes there will always a place for the curated exhibition, allowing visitors to access vast collections--not in a current exhibition--could also be a starting point. Having approachable and knowledgeable staff facilitators on hand to enable these engagements to take place, could provide a richer experience for visitors as well.
> For more about the future of museums, follow the Center for the Future of Museums on Facebook.
> Get the 2015 Trends Watch Report from the American Alliance of Museums.