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The Sneaky Nature of Change

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
This is part three in a series of short essays exploring the basics of Futures Studies and how they can be applied to the museum field. Find the whole series by clicking on “Futures Studies 101” in the blog’s tag cloud.

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.

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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…

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  1. Though perhaps more incremental than disruptive, I think museums will need to evolve(/continue to evolve) to develop significant educational resources and interactives online. A museum's online community may become just as "real" as the actual location-based museum in the future as upcoming generations increasingly understand the world through technology and online networks. It will be important for museums' to engage this community both before and after museum visits.

    In short, I think museums of the future will not be entirely place-based institutions and museums that are slow to pick up on developing online counterparts may find themselves (quickly) behind the curve.

  2. I agree with Colleen. I think museums are already caught in a bit of an identity crisis. Will our strong suit in the future continue to be the traditional role of providing real things in real spaces at real places? Or will a creeping virtuality make museums seem increasingly obsolete? Will the trend of educational instrumentalism make the softer value of museum-as-enrichment untenable from a funding standpoint? Can museums ever sufficiently "prove" their value in this increasingly rigorous environment? Will museums become regarded as superfluous by ascendent political forces who decry the taxation for and government support of cultural entities?

  3. I think the most important incremental change museums face today is the seismic shift in epistemology. Although our "ways of knowing" have mutated rapidly in the last two decades, most museums have been–for good reasons–slow to respond to these changes.

    This is change of the sneakiest sort because it's monumental, but easy to misread.

    These recent epistemological changes have been engendered by a wave of technological innovation. But the medium of digital technology–at least in a museum setting–*isn't* the message: we can't simply use new digital technologies in the service of the same kinds of informal education we've been practicing for the last half-century.

    The fundamental changes in how we view knowledge, learning, and expertise make for a sneaky kind of change. So sneaky, in fact, that it may just creep right past most museums. Many of us, in fact, don't even think that the water feels much hotter today…

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