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Museum Design 2034: The Distributed Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Museum practitioners are pre-adapted to be futurists. Why? Because futurism is, basically, the process of telling compelling stories about things that haven’t happened yet. These stories help people explore what alternate futures might be like, and based on that vision, make wise decisions today. Well museums are great at telling stories—usually about the past or the present, but the same skills can be applied to the future. How do you go about writing a story about the future? 1) Pick a few trends that we can observe, 2) think about how these trends interact and the way they would shape the world and 3) imagine different aspects of your life and work in the world shaped by these influences.

For example, consider the following trends

Here’s my story of how this future might shape museum design a quarter century from now.

Founded in 2015, the Museum of Urban Ecology’s (MUE) headquarters is located on the Lower West Side of Manhattan adjacent to the High Line, a New York City park founded in 2004 and built on a section of the former elevated freight railroad of the West Side Line. MUE integrates the work of two major initiatives— a network of citizen scientists gathering, sharing and interpreting data on the flora, fauna and environmental health of the five boroughs of New York City, and a network of displays interpreting the “natural” urban environment.

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The NYCitizen Scientist Network has over 2,500 members—amateur experts in zoology, botany, climatology and estuarine environments. In coordination with curators at the American Museum of Natural History, NYCitizen Scientists monitor animal and plant populations, water and air quality and log climate records, uploading data via mobile phones, to create an overall picture of the environmental health of the City.

Subgroups of the NYCitizen Scientists include City Naturalists and the Natural Artists, dedicated to teaching residents and visitors about the “nature” of this most populous American city. They accomplish this primarily through a network of displays integrated into the city itself. In addition to installations in traditional venues such as schools and libraries, MUE specializes in “pop-up” exhibits in a variety of formats installed in temporarily vacant storefronts in neighborhoods struggling with vacancy and foreclosure. The installations might be photography exhibits, art installations interpreting the natural world, “traditional” natural history displays of animal mounts or even small zoos. These pop-ups are announced via Proximity Alerts—a microblogging system that has been tremendously successful in generating buzz. Fans compete to be the first to find and “tag” new exhibits, adding them to their “MUE life list” before a pop-up closes anywhere from days to weeks later.

The most popular and heavily used offerings of MUE, however, are the interpretive content they have offered for the past two decades through an evolving range of hand-held portable devices, starting with the iPhone in 2015. This includes Bird Spotter, an application that, when enabled, alerts users to the proximity of species of interest. This GPS-based system is incorporated into approximately 60% of the birds banded and released by NYCitizen Birders (pigeons, sparrows and starlings conspicuously excluded), and the system can be programmed to alert the user to just certain groups of interest (hawks, for example, or unusual migrants) or only individual birds close enough to observe with the naked eye. Twenty museum and retail partners throughout the city also lend out MUE 3-D Overlay Goggles (3DOGS) such as those first popularized through use at Civil War battlefields. Rather than immersing users in the sights (and in case of the most recent 3DOGS, sounds) of war, at 28 sites throughout the City MUSE goggles enable the user to see what the landscape would have looked like at four points in time (10,000, 2,000, 500, and 100 years ago.)

MUE is a fabulous example of a museum capitalizing on the enduring enthusiasm and dedication of amateur experts and on 21st century, technological innovations that provide new ways of distributing content beyond the physical boundaries of a permanent museum building, and the rising costs of creating and maintaining buildings.

What do you think? Plausible story? How would these trends affect how your museum plans its exhibits and operations? Starting from the same premise, would you write a different story of the future? Please share…

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  1. The future is now and with your model, there's no reason to limit the scope of the Museum. Project NOAH is allowing citizens to create virtual field guides–Museum exhibits–to everywhere using iPhones and people of all ages can be a part of both the Museum exhibitions and the usually behind the scenes scientific discoveries by adding additional data to citizen science initiatives like The MUE need only be limited by how the user zooms in on a map.

  2. I think this sort of location aware stuff is going to explode in the next decade. But I also wonder about how this kind of experience will compare with museumgoing. Are we looking at museumgoing declining as a result of people looking for things in context with apps like Noah? Or do traditional museum gallery destinations continue to charm? Is there something inherently appealing about the decontextualizing and recontextualizing of material and content in a museum's social environment? Or will it pass as the Gutenburg revolution seems destined to?

  3. I wrote about this while playing the the part Superstruct game that I believe YOU set up!

    Gyroscope had done some work with the distributed idea a while back for the Buffalo Science Museum- called Science Spots. They only ended up opening one but it stayed around a while.

    Also, my mobile museum (the SF Mobile Museum) project doesn't seem to "replace" a museum visit, but seems to garner a larger audience.

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