Classic scene: Ben Braddock is being grilled by Mrs. Robinson’s posse about what he is going to do with his future, his life, when Mr. McGuire spirits him outside to the dark quiet by the suburban pool. “I just wanna say one word to you…just one word” he murmurs, “Plastics.”
It’s a funny line because plastic seems so…pedestrian, so mundane. So unsexy. But it has, in fact, had a profound effect on our economy, ecology and daily life. So Mr. McGuire, in addition to being a good comic foil, was being a good futurist. In the CFM lecture last fall, Dr. Jane McGonigal, of the Institute for the Future, explained her profession in this way: “Instead of seeing the future, we try to make the future…and the way we do that is by figuring out what the materials of the future will be like. What are the most important ideas, the most important technologies, the most important demographic trends, cultural shifts, climate changes, things that might have an impact across all sectors of society? If we can learn how to work with these materials, we can actually shape a future that we want to live in.”
Of course it can be really hard to accurately spot the next big thing, something that will shake up the world. Sometimes because it creeps in slowly (like museum audio guides, which I recently read were introduced, in a primitive format, way back in the 1950s) or because they represent saltatory, unpredictable change (like the invention of the internet.) A good way to prime your imagination for identifying the most promising materials of the future is to look into the past. What ideas, concepts, trends have shaped the way that museums look and behave now? Another way of asking this—if you could go back in time and prevent some thing from happening, some thing from being invented, when you came back to the present, what would be the difference? (Next time you find yourself with a museum crowd in a bar, trot this out. It starts some pretty interesting arguments.)
You might start with physical materials. Plate glass for example. Where would museums be without vitrines and display cases? This “barrier without a barrier” lets the visitor get up front and personal, without compromising preservation. (Sure, plexi is lighter and easier to work with, but I see it is a refinement of the form, not a transformative breakthrough.)
Then there are mechanical advancements, like air conditioning. You could argue that, since in a simplest form (cool water circulating in ducts through a house) air conditioning has been around since the time of ancient Rome, its eventual mechanization and large scale application was inevitable. But let’s say that in 1902 when Willis Haviland Carrier fired up his prototype it, I dunno, blew up and killed hundreds of people, leading to a ban on mechanical air-conditioning. Can you imagine modern museums without their current fixation on impeccable climate control? (Historic houses aside.) And what about visitation? I bet there would be a lot fewer museums in places like Louisiana and Florida if, for most of the summer, visitors had to contend with sweltering temperature and liquid air.
Move on to technological innovations, such as relational databases. Physical card catalogues and ledgers kept track of museum collections for centuries, but can you really imagine tracking the few million research specimens in any moderately large natural history museum (much less the 136 million objects in the Smithsonian) without such programs? Or the severe limitations on tagging and searching even much smaller collections?
Perhaps the most fun to analyze (and predict) are the trends in cultural norms and behavior. Two examples from the past, nominated by my cronies are:
- The narrative exhibit. “Without it” observes Ann Fortescue, director of education at the Heinz History Center, “objects would be on view without the voice of the museum professional (educator, curator, exhibit developer, designer, etc.) linking them together or telling a story, and the visitor experience would be to make sense of a museum’s collections on their own”
- Randy Delehanty (historian, Presidio Trust) on the other hand, cites the trend of “disenchantment with the so-called “master narrative” in history and art history and the call for its replacement by multiple points of view.”
Now that your brain is primed and focused on the problem, shift your gaze to the future. If you walk into a museum in 2034, what will be startling different, and what “material” made this change possible?
We posed a variant of this challenge to attendees at the recent AAM annual meeting in Philadelphia. Players of “FutureQuest” were invited to vote for the “most promising material of the future” from among the products, services and ideas presented by vendors in MuseumExpoÔ. There were some fringe votes (one player fingered the Chinese Association of Museums, pointing out “in 2034, there will be more museums in China than in the U.S.” Smartie pants.) But most players settled into a close examination of the products in the hall, and how they might be used by museums to effect change. The result? A three-way tie, actually, and I am counting on you blog readers to cast the deciding votes. The finalists are
Fentress Architects, specialists in sustainable architectural design
GestureTek , designers of no-touch virtual reality experiential environments
Green Guestbook, creators of a visitor-driven touchscreen data collection system
And weigh in with your comments on the blog about ideas, materials, technologies, and trends that will transform our field in the coming decade. (No, Phil, you can’t nominate personal jet-packs.)