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One From Each Category: Part 1

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Sometimes I find myself fixating on one category of change, usually technology, since it gets so much coverage in the press. Who can resist news about robots and 3-D printing? (Or 3-D printing that kind of turns a little girl into a robot.)

To combat this myopia I periodically review the five STEEP categories of forecasting—Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political—and summarize the most interesting trends I have seen in each.

Most recently, I prepared such a review for participants in the 2012 Smith Leadership Symposium, organized by the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. BPCP graciously gave permission to adapt this summary for you. I’ve divided it into two parts: today’s post surveys recent news related to social and technological trends. I also pose some questions that may help you consider how these trends affect our field in general, and your organization in particular.

(Also—a reminder: you are welcome to join attendees from the Smith Symposium later this afternoon, Thursday, Sept. 20, 3 p.m. (ET), for a TweetChat I will lead on the future of the museum workplace–hashtag #smithsymp.)

Social/Cultural Trends

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As Phil Katz and I noted in TrendsWatch 2012, we see a rapidly accelerating hunger for informal, pop-up experiences. Just as television eroded people’s willingness to get dressed, get out and go to the theatre or orchestra, mobile food trucks are making bricks and mortar restaurants nervous. Some big name chefs are hedging their bets (and expanding their offerings) by embracing the new model. The “truck” model has exploded way beyond food: now you can even get DNA paternity tests from a truck. ( I wonder what jingle that truck plays?!) Pop-up experiences aren’t always on trucks—some take advantage of open &/empty space to host transitory shops, hotels or language schools.

Questions to consider:
  • Will the proliferation of pop-up cultural experiences, including poetry, art, astronomy, even libraries, cut into people’s willingness to trek to museums, or will it hone their desire for more traditional experiences?

  • Can museums use the “food truck” model, or transitory pop-up experiences, to expand their reach and build new audiences?

  • Food trucks have been hailed as lean start-ups that enable entrepreneurs to test concepts, build audience and prospect for viable locations. Will more museums embrace the mobile or pop-up model to prototype new buildings before committing to a site and commissioning a design?

  • Can the truck model bring museums to “cultural deserts” the way mobile markets are bringing fresh, healthy food to food deserts? Though as this article notes, making fruits and veggies accessible and affordable doesn’t mean people will eat them—the same might prove true of museum experiences.

Technology trends

CFM is tracking many technological trends: augmented reality, 3-D digital printing, haptic technology, near field communication. But in addition to watching specific tech developments, I’ve been contemplating the cumulative effect the rapid pace of technological change has on the expectations people bring to museums. When the Russian government kits out its pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale with wall-to-wall QR codes, do they raise the bar for everyone else? Big museums are pioneering fabulous applications: like the Getty Museum using augmented reality to enable visitors to manipulate a 17th century cabinet of curiosities, the American Museum of Natural History creating an app that takes the place of the old “guide to the exhibits” handout, or Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art providing each visitor with an iPod Touch and associated app that takes the place of conventional exhibit labels. But, as the curator of the Fort William Henry Museum on Lake George recently lamented, it’s hard for a small museum to keep up when kids come in expecting an interactive, multimedia experience. Museums also face a growing expectation that they will digitize their collections. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, has made a promise widely interpreted as a commitment to put “the entire collection of Smithsonian artifacts, records, documents and relics from 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo” online*. Again—a rising bar. As the registrar of the Princeton Art Museum commented, “students expect to be able to see the entire collection online in their pajamas in their dorm rooms at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Questions to consider:
  • Right now funders are willing to support digitization projects, but who, in the future, is going to cover the (large) costs of keeping the digitized data readable and up-to-date when digitization is no longer a shiny new technological trend?

  • How can we identify and share information about free or low cost platforms (such as Aurasma) that small museums can use to deliver on these expectations?

  • How can museums pool resources to create technologically savvy interfaces, as the Balboa Park Online Collaborative has done in sharing WiFi infrastructure and apps, or as the Smithsonian has done in partnering with other museums on the Pheon game?

  • Is there an opportunity for some museums to buck the tide, and provide low tech or no-tech islands of respite and retreat? After all, “off-line hotels” are beginning to capitalize on people’s desire to disconnect.

Next week: a roundup of recent news in the realms of the environment, the economy and (my current favorite scanning category) politics.

*Though the SI has recently clarified that their priorities for digitization target a more realistic goal of 10% of the object collections, and 63% of the archival materials. And they aren’t going to digitize every blessed one of the zoological specimens.

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