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Bring the Future to Your Museum in 2018

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
One of my resolutions for 2018 is to be more proactive and intentional in the work I do with individual museums, companies, and conferences. This starts with being more transparent about the fact that I even do work like this. Most of the fee-based engagements I’ve had over the years have been serendipitous, resulting from word of mouth recommendations, or from people thinking “hey, I wonder if Elizabeth would talk with my board?” It’s kind of been a secret door, there if you knew where to knock. It seems like the door shouldn’t be secret. And if hanging a sign on that door results in more invitations, I can be more strategic in the ones I accept—looking for opportunities to share CFM’s work with diverse audiences; to engage in mutual learning we can share with the rest of the field; and to generate income to underwrite and expand the free products and services which constitute the bulk of CFM’s work.

Being “proactive and intentional” about this work also pushes me to define what I will and won’t do. These arrangements are already a significant part of my work: since 2008 I’ve given over a hundred keynotes, workshops, and public lectures, and a dozen or so museums have brought me in to work with their board or staff committees. But for every invitation I accept I turn down two or three, often directing folks to the many excellent consulting firms and independent professionals out there with expertise in planning, board development, etc. While I feel good about the case-by-case decisions I’ve made, I think it’s time to be more systematic about sorting through opportunities. With the right criteria, I’m confident I can find those for which CFM involvement seems particularly suited, and which would help achieve the goals set forth in the Alliance’s strategic plan.

CFM’s work supports the goal of thought leadership in the AAM strategic plan by helping museums integrate futures-thinking into their planning and operations. We’re also guided by the plan’s three focus areas: diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion; P-12 education; and financial sustainability. CFM’s first fellow, Nicole Ivy, has become AAM’s first director of inclusion. Sage Morgan Hubbard, our Ford W. Bell Fellow for P-12 Education, is developing case studies of successful museum schools. Me, I’m framing my work around the third goal—financial sustainability. So as I apply a selective filter to the invitations we receive, I’m particularly interested in opportunities to help museums understand how traditional sources of support are changing, and to explore new income streams and business models.

Here’s a first pass at a menu of what I do that might be a good fit for museums, conferences, and companies wanting input on strategic foresight, with an emphasis on the financial future.

These are lectures I’ve already developed and tested. I update them before each engagement, and when appropriate can tweak them to align with the particular interest of the host. (Side note: when a museum brings me in to work with their board or staff, I encourage them to host a free public lecture as well—like this one organized by the Clyfford Still Museum and hosted by History Colorado.  Adding lectures such as this to an engagement , at no additional cost to the host, is one more way CFM can provide free content to the field.)

General trends and forecasting:

TrendsWatch—an exploration of trends shaping our field, framed around the most recent forecast (TrendsWatch 2017) or previous reports of particular interest to your audience.

Museum 2040—an introduction to using scenarios in museum planning, illustrated with a guided tour of the recent “future fiction” issue of Museum magazine.

Financial sustainability:

Peering into the Financial Future— an overview of the philanthropic, policy and cultural trends shaping the nonprofit economy, with a look at new business models being tested by museums around the world.

Other thought leadership:

Museums and Inequality—using the framework of Universal Basic Assets developed by the Institute for the Future, this talk explores how museums can help their communities combat inequality in significant, measurable ways.

The 10,000 Year Museum— a playful, provocative look at museums’ promise to preserve their collections for future generations. How long is that covenant is supposed to last, and how does a museum balance its responsibilities to current and future generations? What implications does long-term guardianship have for how a museum plans for the future?


Strategic Foresight for Museum Planning

Building on CFM reports and scenarios, participants create their own visions of the “preferred future” and take away tools to integrate this vision into their organizational planning. Participants will learn how to; apply strategic foresight within institutional setting; set up organizational and personal systems for collecting and analyzing new information; imagine different futures and test assumptions through forecasting and scenario building. This can be a half or full day workshop, depending on how deep a dive you want to provide for participants.

Building Sustainable Income Streams

This workshop leads participants through the process of conceptualizing new mission-based income streams. I piloted the agenda in collaboration with the Ecological Society of America and the Peabody Museum of Natural History, with funding from the National Science Foundation. That first iteration, a two-day workshop with several instructors, focused on natural history research collections, but the format can be adapted to other disciplines.

Using Museum Assets to Combat Inequality

Using the Universal Basic Assets framework developed by the Institute of the Future, participants will inventory their organization’s tangible and intangible assets (e.g., space, digital resources, reputation, and reach), and identify how these assets can be used to support fair, equitable, sustainable development in their communities.  This workshop is currently in development –let me know if you would like to be the first host.

Deeper Engagements

Some museums have involved me more deeply in their planning processes by aksing me to assist with a series of meetings or serve on a committee. I’m still figuring out how to tell when this is a good fit for both parties. I value the opportunity to make a contribution to the outcome of planning and the success of new ventures. That said, sometimes the existing team is already so well developed, or so many decisions have already been made, that I’m not sure my presence will make a significant difference. I welcome the chance to explore about how CFM might contribute to such work.

I see these engagements as a way to maximize the impact of the cumulative work of CFM, as we enter the tenth year of operating the Alliance’s “think tank and idea lab.” During the past decade we’ve generated a lot of content, started numerous discussions and built an impressive reach. Posts on the CFM Blog have received over 2.2 million page views. The six editions of TrendsWatch  have been downloaded about 28,000 times and used to inform strategic planning, educate board members, and fuel staff discussions. CFM’s weekly e-newsletter, Dispatches from the Future of Museums, has over 57,000 subscribers (more than once, I’ve been told “it’s the one email I make sure I open and read when it lands in my mailbox.”) Working with people face-to-face is a great opportunity to deepen the impact of this content.

So the sign is officially on the door: the Museum Futurist is In. If you’d like to talk about bringing me out to work with your museum, conference, or company, email me at emerritt (at) and tell me what you have in mind.

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