How will museums of the future look?

As a keen museum-goer, I was thrilled to move to Amsterdam and explore the wide range of museums on offer in and around the city. In 2015, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank Huis received 2.35 million visitors, 1.9 million visitors, and 1.27 million visitors respectively (see the list here for more information). Meanwhile in my home country of the UK, the top 3 museums in London ranked by visitor numbers in 2015 were the British Museum with 6.8 million visitors, National Gallery with 5.9 million visitors, and the Tate Modern with 4.7 million visitors (see here for more information). In cities like Amsterdam and London it is especially obvious that museums have a bright future ahead of them.

Yet, all too often, museums are considered merely as dusty repositories of boring, old artefacts that have no use anymore. See the article I found entitled 21 reasons why I hate museums to find out about the many factors involved in the reasoning as to why people visit certain museums or not. Nonetheless, the huge visitor numbers to the museums outlined above speak for themselves, suggesting that these museums (among many others on the lists) have a future.

Having studied Heritage and Memory Studies for the past year, it is clear that a pressing question in the museum and heritage field is that if, indeed, museums have a future, then how will the museum of the future look? Speaking in 2014, Professor Sarah Kenderdine, head of special projects at Museum Victoria, Australia, explores this very question in her Ted Talk “How will museums of the future look?” This question has been something I have been asking myself as I wonder how museums will continue to encourage visitors to visit, and how they will try to attract even more visitors. I was attracted to this talk while browsing the Museums Association website.

Collaboration

At the moment, museums rely on collaboration between museum experts and local actors to construct the museum, its narrative and its experience. This collaboration is achieved through the museum being a “contact zone”, facilitating such meetings between experts and local stakeholders (see my previous blog post to find out more about contact zones). I believe that this collaboration is something that will continue well into the future. Kenderdine highlights this too as she mentions that she works together with a very talented team which collaborates with culturally diverse communities. Together they realise Kenderdine’s passion for tangible and intangible heritage and “bring heritage to life in museums across the world”. She says “we often hear that to discover something new, we must study the old. To invent the future, we must understand the past. The poet T. S. Eliot helps us reframe these ideas. He reminds us that tradition cannot be possessed. It must be reinvented and rediscovered by each generation.” In this way, museums will only have a future if new generations are involved in the evolution of museum narratives and involved in the discussion as to how to present and re-present the historical material housed in the museum. From her talk, it is obvious that collaboration with different actors is vital for the future of museums.

Technology

Kenderdine’s passion is reinventing and rediscovering tangible and intangible heritage as sensory experiences. She does this through a combination of art and new technologies as she says that the task of reinventing and rediscovering heritage is both an artistic and technical challenge. Imaging technologies and 3D imaging are technologies she discusses in her talk that could really contribute to a bright future for museums. If implemented in museums, 3D imaging in particular would allow visitors to see inside historical artefacts, giving them a view of the past that was never before possible. It could also provide a solution to the otherwise destructive archaeology of such artefacts. In a traditional museum setting, a glass case separates the object from the visitor, creating a distanced interaction with the past. In effect, the 3D technology would remove this barrier between the object and the visitor, enabling a more intimate window onto the past. I believe that interactions of this type will be plentiful in future museums, while a personal connection with history and the past is encouraged with the visitors.

Another use of technology mentioned in the talk is that of digitisation. She mentions that the British Museum has only 0.4% of its collection on display to visitors, and that “we need new strategies to be able to access our cultural collective of our memory”. One strategy and/or technology she believes is “something that could change the nature of museum visitation, of museum experiences” is that of a massive data browser at the Museum Victoria in Australia which recombines over 100,000 objects from the museum’s collection. The browser enables the visitor to examine the objects on a one to one scale, allowing connections to be made between indigenous material, social history and the natural sciences. The browser is displayed in a 360-degree 3D environment and could present a real opportunity for the future of museums and their archives.

According to Aleida Assmann in her chapter entitled “Canon and Archive”, all historical materials in the archive traditionally represent a passive form of memory, while the very specific materials chosen to be displayed in the museum represent the canon and therefore an active form of memory. The massive data browser and its technology could change the way that the archive is accessed, essentially bringing the archive into the active part of the museum, reanimating it and stimulating interaction with the visitors. In this way, the definitions and boundaries of the canon and archive would become blurred, ultimately creating an overlap between the two as both are actively accessible inside the museum. If such technology becomes available to museums, then the archive will become digitally accessible to visitors within the museum, enabling 100% of the museum’s collection to be displayed, digitally and physically. This presents a very exciting opportunity for museums in the future as they digitise their archives.

Due to these technologies, the visitor will have a more enriching and participatory experience in the museum, hopefully encouraging them to visit time and time again. I found the talk by Professor Kenderdine inspiring and it certainly worked to answer the question “How will museums of the future look?”. As discussed, the answer lies somewhere in the combination of continued collaboration with diverse cultural communities, the involvement of new generations in museum narratives, along with the implementation of new technologies within the museum, as well as a visit to the museum becoming an interactive experience with the past. That’s quite a checklist!

How do you think museums of the future will look? I welcome your comments!

 

Bibliography:

Aleida Assmann, “Canon and Archive”, in Astrid Erll, and Ansgar Nünning (eds.) Cultural Memory Studies, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), p97-107, (98)

Robin Boast, ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’ (Museum Anthropology 34/1 (2011): 56-70)

Professor Sarah Kenderdine speaking at TedX Gateway, “How will museums of the future look?”, 02/09/2014, http://www.museumsassociation.org/video/02092014-how-will-museums-of-the-future-look

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