CFM Council Member Day Al-Mohamed and I recently led a forecasting session at the Leadership and Excellence in Accessible Design Conference at the Kennedy Center. (An earlier post on the CFM blog solicited your input for this session. Thank you to those who contributed!)
We used a fairly standard format for a mini-tour of the future for any given issue. You can use it at your workplace, too:
- Start by questioning assumptions to free up your thinking about where trends may take us, and how the future could be different than the past.
- Examine and discuss data on trends related to the issue (for this session, we examined trends related to disability and accessibility in the areas of technology, medicine, demographics, and internal museum culture.)
- Generate, discuss and comment on scenarios based on the trends and your own knowledge of the field. (In this post about the MANY conference last spring I described this part of the process in more detail.)
I continue to be haunted by one of the assumptions that Day and I challenged our audience to question: the assumption that when museums balance preservation with access, preservation prevails.
To see how deeply embedded this assumption is in museum culture, consider these examples that I have experienced or heard about in my career:
- An exhibit is lit with annoyingly low light levels even though the artifacts on display are reproductions. Why? Because “that’s our standard” and “if the light levels are higher here, people will expect it everywhere.”
- A museum bans photography on the grounds that flash photography could harm the artifacts when most of the specific artifacts in question are not light sensitive. Nina Simon recently did a good job of questioning this practice on multiple fronts.
- Another good one from Nina: guards who stop people from interacting with exhibits designed to be interactive, because of course, people shouldn’t touch things in a museum. Here’s a recent post by Colleen Dilenschneider with a further twist on this: a guard is fired for interacting with a piece of interactive art.
These examples show how deeply the presumption in favor of preservation is encoded in our current thinking. But what if, in the future, the paradigm flipped to favoring access? Ridiculous, you think? Maybe, but consider factors that could impel such a sea change:
- A shift in consumer expectations. Due to museums increasing commitment to transparency, and the rise in online cataloging, the public is better informed about the vast number of collections in storage that they don’t get to see, and will probably never get to see. Those who pay the bills set the rules—what if they want to touch the stuff?
- An increase in visual and cognitive impairments. The trends data Day and I examined make it clear this will happen—certainly an increase in the number of people with access needs related to disabilities, probably an increase in the proportion of the population as well. Say we got to a point where over 50% of our audience has such impairments. Would that change the way we think about “accommodation?”
- The rise of the virtual, and an increasing desire to interact with the real thing. Every forecasting exercise we have run projects that in the future, people will spend more time spent immersed in virtual worlds. Optimists predict a backlash that benefits museums, as people increasingly value time spent with the real thing. But, as the quality of virtual representations increases, as it will, how will that change our standards for assessing a real experience? How does getting to (virtually) put your nose two inches from a very high-quality visual representation stack up against looking at the real thing, behind glass, from a couple of feet away? How does being able to “touch” an object with virtual sensors compare to being told “don’t touch” the real thing? To compete with increasingly sophisticated virtual replicas, a museum may have to let people have a “real” experience that can’t be duplicated.
- A shift in people’s thinking about a timeframe. Projections of the imminent collapse of human civilization, are not hard to find. Unlike the perpetual recurring doomsday theorists, these folks may have a point. The arc of human growth and resource consumption is, in the long run, unsustainable. And it is far more common for animal populations (human or otherwise) to collapse than to stabilize when they exceed their environment’s carrying capacity. In any case, the question is, what if people come to believe that this is true? That civilization as we know it doesn’t have hundreds of years left, much fewer thousands? In that context, the public might not care so much about the preservation of objects for putative posterity. They might put more value on the immediate gratification of being able to touch, stroke, handle, manipulate original material.
Suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and roll with me on this one. If in the future access trumps preservation, how would museums change? How would you decide which artifacts still warrant preservation for all time, and how do you make that case? Then take a hard look at your existing collections: what things could be touched, or brightly lit, without permanent harm, and which would not be a permanent loss to humanity were they destroyed, through handling, in a few decades of use? Bends your brain, doesn’t it?…Skip over related stories to continue reading article