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Crowdsourcing the Future of Museums

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Crowdsourcing (n): the process of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor and outsourcing it to a large group of people or community in the form of an open call for input.

Earlier this month I enlisted the help of some 200 of the best and brightest of the New York museum community to crowdsource the future of museums. Presented with the trend data extracted from Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures (M&S 2034) projecting radically higher energy prices in the next 25 years, attendees at the Museums in Conversation luncheon on March 30, 2009, in Tarrytown, N.Y., came up with some pretty creative scenarios.

This exercise was the Beta-test for a game “Crowdsourcing the Future” that we will run again at the AAM Annual Meeting next month at the session “Shaping the Future” on Sunday, May 3 at 9 am.

Nina Simon kicked off the conference with a brilliant keynote encouraging museum practitioners to be generous, greedy thieves who steal, adapt and share good ideas. I have gleefully embraced this philosophy, and freely admit I have stolen and adapted the format of this game from Jane McGonigal’s recent project Signtific and intend to share it broadly with you and others. Here is how the game works:

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After absorbing some trend data (in this case taken from M&S 2034), players take a few minutes to create a “mini-forecast” of something they think will be true of museums in the future, in light of this trend. They write this on a big colored sticky note, slap it on top of a “game card” (an 8 ½ x 14 piece of paper) and pass it to the person on their left. That person responds by playing one of four response stickies:

  • Challenge, explaining why they disagree with the forecast
  • Support, agreeing and building on the idea
  • Adapt, envisioning what this forecast would look like for themselves or their institution
  • Question, asking for clarification

As the game cards are passed around the table, each player comments and expands on the mini-forecasts, building the physical equivalent of an on-line discussion thread. The ground rules are that all forecasts can be shared in forums such as this blog, unless they are marked “Private,” and that if people want to be credited they identify themselves on their forecast.

Here is a typical thread, taken from several hundred created at the luncheon:

Mini-forecast: In 2025, museums will serve as leaders in their communities for generating projects to create energy and foster plans for better energy consumption.

  • “I don’t see any reason to believe that museums will be leaders in this—we’re traditionally energy hogs and are the last to adapt to new technologies.” Good point. Usually the best predictor of people’s future behavior is their past.


  • “Museums could serve particularly well in partnering with other institutions that are positioned to lead in this area.”
  • “We have to find ways to literally sustain our operations and teach our visitors to do the same.”


  • “[At my museum] I will spend 4 hours a day shoveling @#$#! into furnaces, and the other 4 writing grants.” There always has to be a smartypants in the audience, yes?


  • “How will this work for institutions that do not have technology/energy/etc. as part of their expertise or mission?”

A longer summary of content the energy forecasting in this exercise is posted on the CFM website.

Practiced on this scale, as a brief, provocative interlude, this exercise’s primary use is shifting peoples’ focus for an hour or two from dealing with short term problems on a small scale (“how will I staff the museum this Saturday with three volunteers out sick?”) to long term challenges on a broader scale (“Who will be volunteering in museums in 10, 20 years and how will that affect how we staff the museum and do our work?”) Both kinds of planning are necessary to run a successful museum, but all too often the first kind of thinking gets all our time and attention. Spending some time, on a regular basis, thinking about the longer term will inevitably leak into our planning and decision making, making it more likely we will steer towards the future we prefer to live in.

Practiced on a larger scale, I think that crowdsourcing the future of museums has great potential and power. CFM plans to summarize and deliver to the field the best forecasting we can find about a variety of trends that will affect museums in the future, from energy production to demographic and social trends. But no one can forecast the trends in museums—our culture and operations—better than the field itself. How can we best harness the wisdom of the crowd (and we have a large number of experienced experts in our crowd!) to see where we are headed?

My vision is to create a “National Museum Forecasting Network” to solicit and synthesize the predictions of a large number of expert museum practitioners nationally and internationally, and encourage an even broader group to comment and expand on these forecasts. Who would you nominate to be a “Museum Oracle,” generating the content for this network? Write and let me know…and don’t be surprised if you get a call from me recruiting you to join!

Next week I will blog about forecasts related to the “MyCulture” trend discussed in M&S 2034. This explores increasing expectations among our audience that they be involved in shaping their own experience at the museum, and contributing to the content.

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  1. I was not only the smartypants, I was a great lover of this exercise.
    So refreshing to do something that asks me to think and comment instead of quietly sucking down the free coffee and wondering who the hell is at the podium.
    It demonstrated that what we do, weather that is creating exhibitions, or sharing at a professional conference, we can turn it into a participatory activity that stands to energize all participants.
    You go future lady!

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