Is questioning the future of museums fashionable?

One has recently seen an increase on papers on future of museum, the problems they will face with digital challenges. These articles on the transformation of museums seem to follow quite a fashion. Here La Tribune devotes an entire record on it, after the launch of Silicon Valois, here it is an important French TV channel that seems to be surprised that museum and fashion can actually communicate, Quebec le Devoir speaks about revolution and finally, here, here and here posts talk about the very last changes in museums.

One would think that we have forgotten, especially the media, as professionals have been gathered in structured organizations and groups these last few years, the first conferences of Museum and the Web (1997!), MuseumNext (2009), Communicating the Museum (2000!) and the excellent book “The Participatory Museum” by Nina Simon and her blog Museum 2.0.

Even I, have perpetrated two books on the virtual museum (2006 and 2011).

What happened?

The museum digital revolution, victim of collective amnesia?

I have to admit that it’s quite encouraging to see that finally the press got hold of these subjects and decided to pay closer attention to museums activities. Working in or loving a museum is now “cool”. (For part of the population, but the youngest. Ask our favourite museums community managers what they think).

Museums have been among the first to look at new technologies and integrate them into their mediation and communication strategies, considering of course their budget constraints. Thus, among the first consumer websites on Internet many were from museums. They have, in fact, quickly realized this new medium will soon become a mass one. Some smaller museums have even associated themselves, such as Musenor (Association of Curators  from Nord-Pas-de-Calais Museums in France), making common cause in order to have an online storefront.

So what has happened?

Museums communities were quite long to develop. It was not until the last decade that blogging enthusiasts (and professionals – and some of them are both) groups (as Muzeonum) or events (Museomix, Un Soir un Musée un Verre) appeared and began to get a voice. This site, launched in 2007, is therefore one of the precursors.

Musems’ reach has strongly increased thanks to their presence on social networks. This sudden visibility, coupled with mediatised actions such as Museomix or atypical personalities like Diane Drubay, participated in the visibility of these communities and their questioning.

Then, a major player in the field of new technologies, Google has made a dramatic entrance with the Google Art Project, held at first sight less problematic than the Google Library (I’d love to understand why).

Last but not least, drastic budget cuts to cultural institutions in these times of crisis have led some managers of these institutions to respond publicly to highlight the actions of their structures and good expenses management.

All these factors have therefore given a spotlight on museums and their actions. Studies (fairly new) have also shown (and defended) public investment in the cultural field.

(video below is in French) [/ dailymotion]

But talking about the future of museums could also have a perverse effect.

Why talking about the future of museums may be holding us back?

It is with this catchy title that Coleen Dilen, from Know Your Own Bone blog, wishes to draw our attention on five important points. According to her, talking about the future of museums may prevent us from moving forward and acting on critical missions.

Accordingly, most comments on museums’ future would refer to their present … In fact, all the examples quoted above (except Nina’s book and mine) talk about either past or current museums’ activities and strategies. Even this article about museums in 2050 actually refers to current developments. Nothing new under the sun.

Thus, Coleen highlights 5 reasons that allow her to assert this position:

  • the main references to the future of museums are, at the end, part of ongoing discussions in museums: engaging communities, open content, etc.
  • calling it future excuses putting off issues that are actually immediate needs for organizational survival
  • The future implies some uncertainty but data trends are not uncertain
  • We may not be paying enough time and attention to right now
    Talking about the future sometimes provides a false sens of innovation that may simply be vanity.

And what if we marvel at what the museums for once and not at what they could become?

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