Complacency is the enemy of futurism. Too often we chug along, taking things day by day, oblivious to how the world is morphing around us into something entirely other. The key to forecasting is being aware of change—change that is happening or is on the cusp of breaking over us. This is harder than it sounds, because change is sneaky and hides itself in various ways.
You’ve heard the fable that if you put a frog in a pot of water, and heat the pot slowly, the frog won’t notice being boiled to death? This myth, while laughably underestimating amphibian common sense, reflects a deep truth about human nature. Sometimes change is hard to notice because it happens slowly and unobtrusively. The cost of insuring collections creeps up, the willingness of cities to let museum property remain tax-free creeps down. This kind of incremental change is hidden in plain site—we don’t see it because it is gradual, and we often don’t step back to see the overarching pattern over time.
Conversely, radical, transformative change can be hard to imagine because it may be outside our experience. How do you convince a tadpole it is about to grow legs and become a frog? You can’t expect what you can’t imagine. Disruptive change pounces, rather than creeps upon us, often finding us unprepared. Would a museum professional from 2000 have predicted that bag checks and metal detectors would be a common part of the museum-going experience? (A change in culture triggered largely by the terrorist attacks of 2001.) Would a museum intern in 1969 have anticipated that by the time she became director, museums would be reaching huge audiences that never physically visit the museum via something called “the internet?” (The first message was sent over ARPANET on October 29th, 1969.)
These two types of change, incremental and disruptive, interact with one other to create patterns over time. Take, for example, the passage of the No Child Left Behind act. That disruptive event, interacting with a number of trends, created a storm that still buffets the museum community. The new focus on teaching to the test, combined with the rising costs of fuel, tight budgets and increased parental anxiety has led the number of school field trips to nosedive. Now we live in a future that calls for new strategies for museums to reach students—for example, via the web—and new incentives for schools to use our learning resources—like tailoring programs to fit NCLB-oriented curricula.
What sneaky trends do you see creeping up on your museum and the field as a whole? What disruptive events can you imagine that may lie waiting to pounce? Please share your thoughts with other readers…