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Breaking Trail

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This blog started last February—faced with its approaching six month anniversary I have been wrestling with the right balance of content. As I travel the country and cruise the web talking about CFM, asking how it can best serve the field, a frequent answer has been “we want examples!” So I am going to periodically use this space to highlight museums that are already treading the edge of the future: dealing with trends that will face all museums eventually and exploring new ways of operating. This week I want to highlight the good work of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff

As the science fiction writer William Gibson observed, “the future is already here, it is just unequally distributed.” Arizona is facing some challenges sooner, and more swiftly than the rest of the nation, but all of these trends (climatic, demographic, economic) will affect the nation’s museums eventually. Robert Breunig, director of MNA, is using the CFM report Museums & Society 2034 (M&S 2034) and other sources of forecasting information to break trail for the field—demonstrating the benefits of taking a long term view of the future. As Breunig led his board and staff through their recent planning process, he set the stage by presenting the pertinent data for their region, drawn from M&S 2034 and other sources. It’s a sobering picture. In the first half of this century, the state’s population is projected to more than triple, surging to 16 million. At the same time, Arizona faces profound environmental challenges including degradation related to population growth, continued drought, and species migration due to disruption of ecological niches. Higher fuel costs and/or energy shortages will threaten tourism, affecting the local economy, when Arizona already has poverty levels higher than the national average.

MNA’s approach to planning demonstrates the real world, practical application of forecasting. In the face of their local challenges, MNA is leading by example–demonstrating how to take action and helping people understand the changes taking place so that community members can make good decisions regarding their future. The museum just dedicated its new Easton Collection Center, a 17,000 square foot facility that will house many of the museum’s collections. The building is designed to earn the U.S. Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification. Its living roof will capture and re-circulate water to sustain native species (including some of the local plants threatened by climate change and environmental degradation.) Photovoltaic cells help ensure that the building relies on minimal use of fossil fuel. And the building will preserve the biological collections that provide baseline data for the past and current flora and fauna of the region, key to assessing the losses that will occur in the coming decades.

The building is sensitive to cultural change, as well. There are long-standing tensions between the Anglo and Native American communities in Flagstaff, and this will probably be exacerbated by the increasing diversity resulting from the growing Latino population. Breunig wants the museum to help unify the community and serve as a trusted venue for hard discussions. In this spirit, MNA’s Native American Advisory Committee played a significant role in the building plans, contributing elements to the design they feel will make the Native community feel at home in the structure.

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Facing the future is not just about building “green.” MNA’s institutional plan outlines a path for addressing many of the challenges highlighted by trends forecasting. It sets a goal of strengthening participation and active involvement by people of various cultural backgrounds through collaboration with local groups and organizations. And it envisions MNA’s exhibits and programs as means to “present perspectives on the past to afford society the ability to make sound choices for the future.”

Many of MNA’s core documents, including its institutional plan, are available on its website. I hope you take a look at what they are dealing to grapple with the changes that will challenge Flagstaff in the coming decades. And please, comment here or email me at to share examples of other forward-thinking, innovative museums whose work deserves to be more widely known…

[Note: this article will appear in an expanded format in the upcoming issue of the Western Museums Association newsletter, WestMuse]

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