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Workshopping the Future: Foresight in Hindsight

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
The Museums team at St Andrews are creating new relevance for the 100-year-old Bell Pettigrew Museum, including using it as a venue for student-run music events bringing new audiences into an old natural history museum. Image from http://museumevents.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/)
The Museums team at St Andrews are creating new relevance for the 100-year-old Bell Pettigrew Museum, including using it as a venue for student-run music events bringing new audiences into an old natural history museum. Image from http://museumevents.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/)

At AAM 2019 in New Orleans, I led a three-hour futuring workshop, teaching attendees how to conduct foresight activities at their own organizations. Katie Eagleton attended that workshop, and in today’s post she shares how she has applied this training in her own work. Register now if you want to snag one of the few slots left in this year’s workshop, being held at AAM 2020 from 1 -5 pm on Sunday, May 17. Let me know if you would like to bring the workshop to your museum or conference by submitting an inquiry via this JotForm.
–Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

Strange as it might sound, I’m starting this blog about futuring by looking back. Back a year to March 2019, when I was living in Washington DC and making plans with my husband for trips we’d take, thinking about whether this would be the year we’d travel to Cuba, and waiting to hear whether I had a final-stage interview for a job I’d applied for but wasn’t at all sure I’d get. I couldn’t have known then that within only a few weeks everything would change. I was offered the job (in Scotland, as Director of Museums at the University of St Andrews), all our plans for the year were turned over, and we started to plan an international move with all the logistical complications that brings.

In April 2019, between filling in customs forms and packing boxes, and finishing everything up at work, I was determined to make the most of my last few months in the US. I’d already registered for the AAM Annual Meeting in New Orleans, and when the programme was published I took a close look at the workshops. I’d been reading the blog posts of the Center for the Future of Museums for a while, so when I spotted the Futuring workshop it seemed like it might be interesting, even though I didn’t have a very clear sense of what it would involve. But at a time when my own future was all in flux, and rather uncertain, I thought it might be fun – and perhaps even useful.

I’ve long been interested in the way that museums are as much about the future as they are about the past. Whenever we choose an object to put in the collection, we are changing that object’s future, at the same time as making a well-informed but sometimes mostly intuitive decision about its likely future significance. If we preserve or conserve objects, we are in part trying to work out the future uses of an object, and how to make it meaningful for future audiences. When we run an educational session with a group of younger visitors we are hoping and planning that our work will have an impact on their future in some direct or indirect way. As we plan our exhibitions programme we are thinking about what will resonate with and be relevant for our visitors in 6 months, or a year, or three years’ time, and how we will create what will at that point be powerful and memorable experiences. So whatever someone’s role in museums, the future is always part of it.

As a newly-appointed and first-time director, I was also interested in the session for my own professional development. My new job was to lead the Museums team at the University of St Andrews through the completion of a major project to extend and redisplay the Wardlaw Museum, and in parallel to set out a new vision and strategic plan. Both of these are profoundly future-oriented pieces of work, so as well as having a general interest in sector thinking and practise, I was keen to learn some tools and techniques that might be useful in my new job.

By the time the workshop came around in May 2019 I was tired – big conventions and all their parallel sessions and social events often take it out of me. I’d been in New Orleans for 5 days, and let’s just say I’d been making the most of the food and drink options on offer in that extraordinary city, and was ready to go home. The futuring workshop was on the last afternoon, and despite all that end-of-conference temptation to have a nap and go straight to the airport, I was very glad I signed up and went to the workshop. It wasn’t only fun and interesting at the time, but it’s been one of the things from last year’s Annual Meeting that I’ve really used, and put into practise.

I’ve written in another blog post about how I used some of the tools and techniques we learned in the workshop with my team last autumn, a few months into my new job. Together, the team and I imagined disasters of various kinds and worked out how a silver lining could be found even in bad situations. We used one of the tools from the workshop to think about the opening of the Wardlaw Museum, and what some positive and not-so-positive situations might be. Then, working through the implications of those, we talked together about what we could do if they happened, or what we could do now to reduce the chance of the not-so-positive things happening. Using playful approaches to think about the future of our work and our museum helped the team see things differently. But even more importantly, it gave us a stronger sense as a team that whatever happened – whether we’d foreseen it or not – we could pull through it with our combined skills and ideas.

Fast forward to the present day, and the Wardlaw Museum opens in only a few weeks. This will be the end of a major capital project, and a complete redisplay of the museum, but also the beginning of a five-year transformation of the Museums of the University of St Andrews. We have articulated a new vision to reimagine university museums through curiosity and conversation, but the work now is to translate that into goals for the coming five years, and aspirations and a sense of direction beyond that. University research and teaching is a constant work in progress, and we have decided to embrace that spirit of enquiry in planning our work in the university’s museums – which creates space for trying out new things, even (and perhaps especially) if we aren’t sure whether they will work. But this is an uncertain time to be setting out ambitious 5-year goals, given that in the UK we are looking at the possible impact of Brexit on our plans, and the way climate change will affect universities and museums, among other uncertainties that our plan will have to contend with. We’ll need to get the right balance between being optimistic and ambitious, and making sure we’re resilient enough to grow sustainably and deal with whatever financial and other shocks might be coming. So, once the Wardlaw Museum is open, I’ll be coming back again to the futuring tools I learned in the workshop last year, as well as some more that I’ve picked up since then by following up on tips from the workshop.

Futuring doesn’t predict the future, despite the name. What it does is give tools to think systematically and creatively about what we can do, what our options are, what blind spots we have, and what assumptions and biases underpin our current ways of thinking about both challenges and opportunities. My future sadly doesn’t include a trip to San Francisco for AAM in 2020, but Liz Merritt will be running the futuring workshop again. Like New Orleans, San Francisco is a city that has many attractions, arguably some that are more tempting than spending an extra few hours in a convention center. But if your experience is anything like mine, that half-day learning skills and tools that can be used and reused to shape the present and future of your work is a great investment in professional development, whatever your role in our fast-changing museums sector.

Looking to our opening day on 4 April 2020 and beyond, if you’d like to keep in touch with the Museums of the University of St Andrews and how we’re getting on with our new museum and new vision, you can read my personal blog at www.katieeagleton.com, follow me on Twitter @fearandsequins, read the latest updates on the Museums blog, or follow us @museumsunista on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

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