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Throwback Thursday: Questioning (more) Assumptions

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

In rereading old posts from the this blog, I was reminded that some things bear repeating. This post, from 2009, makes one such point: always start your planning by identifying what you assume to be true about the future–and then take some time to imagine the opposite. The past five years has solidified my belief that a skeptical approach to museum conventions is vital to the future of our field. So with this post as a refresher, I ask the question again: What basic assumptions underpinning decisions made by your organization, or the field as a whole, bear reexamination in the future?

Questioning Assumptions

originally posted on March 25, 2009

Earlier this month I participated in a very interesting scenario planning exercise at the Smithsonian. The session was led by Peter Schwartz, a board member from the Long Now Foundation, an organization whose mission is “to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” Now there is long range planning to aspire to! Guiding us through two days of thought about the future, Peter emphasized that one weakness of scenario planning is people’s tendency to take certain things for granted. This makes it is tremendously important to recognize and question the assumptions we make about our organizations and museums in general.

Since CFM encourages museums to use scenario planning as part of their suite of planning tools, I want to begin an ongoing conversation about what museums often take for granted about their world. Here goes—I’ll start, and you weigh in.

Let’s start with an assumption that museums are already beginning to question:

Everything in the collections stays in the collections
Barring unfortunate circumstances (whale ovaries that prove to be at risk of exploding), material that inconveniently proves to have been illegally expropriated from its country of origin, the need to sell one Dutch master painting to afford an even better one) once an object entered the collections, it used to be presumed it should stay. Forever. The field is already revisiting this issue, if only due to the belated realization that collections storage is both finite and expensive. About seven years ago the Accreditation Commission instigated a national discussion on the need to engage in collections planning–the process of shaping the collection in a coordinated and uniform direction over time to refine and expand the value of the collection in a predetermined way. Now there is wide acceptance that having a collections plan is a best practice, and it is well on its way to evolving into a standard (something all good museums are expected to do.) That may make museums look, and operate, very differently in the future.

Everything that fits the plan goes into the collectionsWhat is the next logical challenge to the collecting paradigm? Perhaps in the future there may be many alternatives to the “permanent” collection owned by and residing in the museum for the indefinite future. Are there collections that museums might consciously acquire for a finite period, and then pass along (into or out of the public domain) when they are no longer of use to their community of users? Might museums increasingly “curate” (identify, track, research, conserve and interpret) material that never enters their collections at all? Which museums like the Richmond History CenterHistoric Annapolis and others already do, in effect, when they make whole neighborhoods extensions of their museums.

Growth is good, necessary and inevitableMuseums can hardly be faulted for embracing this value, which I think underpins the whole American way of life. How many directors and board chairs see the pinnacle of their achievement as being the capital campaign funding the museum’s new building or expansion? This is so ingrained in our thinking that even the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is jumping on the growth wagon, and they have as unimpeachable excuse as a museum ever had for NOT expanding. In fact, they had to go all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to determine it did not violate their founder’s intent in order to do so. 

For a variety of reasons society as a whole is beginning to question whether growth is good and inevitable, or whether it is even sustainable. Taken to its logical extreme, it is obvious that of course it is not. Any system (ecological, financial or other) has a maximum carrying capacity. Sometimes we find a way to temporarily expand the pie (for example, increasing crop yields by using nitrogen based fertilizers—in essence spending solar energy that had been banked for millions of years as fossil fuels.) But in the end, we reach the limits of these new resources as well. We as a nation are contemplating what our society will look like, post-peak oil production. And this year we are wondering how many of our financial systems were, in effect, Ponzi schemes that created an illusion of sustainable growth. As a species, we need to assess the world’s carrying capacity, and create an economy in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems. As we do so, America, and American museums, will explore the rational limits to our growth and learn what it means to live within a steady-state economy, rather than one premised on unending growth. How do we reward organizations and individuals for sustaining a museum at the same, right size for decades? Or even celebrate a good decision to downsize it in response to changes in the community? Which is a good segue to the next assumption…

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Museums as organizations tied to a particular placeOn an historical timescale human populations have always been transient, and in this century the rate of migration may accelerate, driven by ecological, economic and political forces. Museums, anchored to their large, expensive buildings, their historical communities and their sense of identity, traditionally behave as if they are fixed and immovable. How do we reconcile these conflicting behaviors? Will the Detroit Institute of Arts continue to be a bastion of culture in a city that continues to decline in wealth and population? Who will support it? Who will it serve? Can it actually contribute to the revitalization of Detroit, to a scale comparable with its glory days of the auto industry? Does it face a future in which it downsizes to fit the needs and resources of a much reduced city? Or does it pick up stakes and move to a swelling population center that wants and can support an institute of its quality? If the majority of the population of New Orleans relocates to Houston in the next decade, should the New Orleans Museum of Art follow, and in order to continue to serve the community that built it?

Museums will always be tax exempt nonprofits
We are living in a world turned upside-down. Newspapers, in economic freefall, are closely watching their compatriot Mother Jones and considering going non-profit. Now that newspapers’ traditional economic model of using advertising revenue to subsidize investigative reporting is busted, they are considering our model—finding people who value a service that provides a general good to society (in this case, acting as a watchdog on business and government)—and asking them to underwrite it. “Why should you support us?” Mother Jones asks. “Because “smart, fearless journalism” keeps people informed–”informed” being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works.” Other services that have traditionally been delivered through nonprofit NGOs are exploring a for-profit business model, finding that it does their good work more effectively. For example, the Africa Netmark regional project teams the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development with the S.C. Johnson Company (a multinational for-profit producer of insect-control products) to distribute pesticide-treated materials to combat malaria. There are already a handful of for-profit museums (the International Spy Museum, the Newport Aquarium, the Museum of Sex.) What can we learn from their economics? What do they do (or not do) differently from nonprofit museums? Might organization, in the future, unbundled “profitable” functions such as exhibits from functions such as collections care, research, conservation that, like investigative reporting, are valued public goods and lodge them in separate organizations?

Your turn! What basic assumptions underpinning decisions made by your organization, or the field as a whole, bear reexamination in the future?

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