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Navigating Conservation Futures

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I’m often bemused when I compare the answers to two questions I frequently ask museums:

  1. One of the key functions identified in your mission is preserving collections. What’s your goal? How long do you want them to be around?
  2. What timeframe do you examine when you approach institutional planning?

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The answer to 1) (once I stipulate it can’t be “forever”) is usually in a 200–1000 year range. The answer to 2) is usually around 20 years, if that.
This depressing disconnect made me particularly happy to receive a paper from MaryJo Lelyveld, conservator of frames and furniture, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, titled “Beyond Swabs and Solvent Gels: Using Scenarios to Generate, Evaluate and Navigate Conservation Futures.” This is a good read for the staff of any collecting institution. How can we expect to do a good job of preserving scientific, artistic, historic and cultural heritage for future generations if we don’t spend some mental energy considering the impact that trends will have on collections and collecting?
The main text of the paper is a general overview of forecasting and scenario planning, pitched at conservation professionals. For those budding futurists and have read the Futures Studies 101 series on this Blog, or attending the University of Houston’s Certificate intensive Certificate in Strategic Foresight* this will be a review of familiar material.
But I recommend Appendix 2: Scenarios for the Future of Conservation to the attention of all readers. Here Lilyveld summarized pertinent trends in all the STEEP categories (social, technological, economic, environmental and political) and assesses their impact on collections. She also defines a set of key issues and addresses them through presenting the seed (or kernel) of three scenarios—hypothetical stories of the future about 20 years from now. These are set in Australia, but the drivers of change shaping that nation are broadly similar to those facing the U.S., and the scenarios could be adapted for American museums with minor changes.
The Great Release envisions a future in which the rising financial burden of caring for collections, slow economic growth and the collapse of government funding leads many state and regional galleries to close their collections and aggressively deaccession materials. Private and cooperative collectors step in to buy these materials, and conservators (92% of whom are self-employed in this future) band together to form centralized cultural heritage skills centers to care for these distributed collections. The current Maker movement gives rise to the “Thing-kers” movement—people eager to learn lost trades and return to the comfort of tangible artifacts.
In GaME on natural disasters and terrorist attacks have fueled the movement of collections, and conservators, to centralized, secure storage sites. (Hmm, sounds like Louisiana.) “Real” exhibits lose ground to “immersive art experiences.” Not that collections are not longer valued. au contraire—some museums have begun to monetize their collections by selling biological samples to commercial enterprises, others sell accurate 3-D models of their material. Conservators specialize as either Heritage Scientists, focusing on analysis and research, or Cultural Replicators, skilled in 3D documentation, database management and creation of virtual experiences.
Conservation 2030: Museoagora paints a picture of the future in which museum growth and expansion is fueled by increased volunteerism on the part of retiring Boomers and unemployed Millennials. Attendance rises to new heights, and museums expand their activities in a variety of ways, turning their grounds into botanical arks and creating pop-up museums in local businesses. The increased use and transportation of collections demands more conservation support, assisted by advances in nanotechnology and molecular engineering that essentially enable artifacts to heal themselves. (This is what futurists would call a “bright future.” Can you tell?)
As with all scenarios, these stories are starting points for deeper exploration. You might adapt and expand them to apply to your museum and its community, helping your staff to plan for many potential futures, all of which include well-cared for collections.
*Registration is now open for the Jan. 9–13 session of the University of Houston’s Certificate in Strategic Foresight course. Register by Dec. 9 for the early bird rate, and mention you are a CFM follower for a 20% discount! Several museum graduates have documented their experience in the course here on the CFM Blog.

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