Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pondering Museum Futures: Honest Questions

I've been lucky enough to have many great conversations about museums in three different countries over beer, vodka and prosecco, with my friend and colleague Katrin Hieke from Germany. That's why I'm so pleased to share this guest post with her observations, thoughts and questions about a Swiss museum conference. The idea of questions is an intriguing conference theme, and as you'll see below, the organizers worked hard to embed it all the way through.  We hope you end up with some questions of your own!

At the end of last month I had the pleasure to attend the annual congress of the Swiss Museum Association & ICOM Switzerland on Museum Future(s). It resonated a lot with me and stirred up quite a few questions. Maybe that was not only because the museum field seems to be very much on the move (has it ever not be, I wonder?), but so am I -- reconsidering my own professional future having nearly finished my long ongoing dissertation project. And since future(s) of all kinds are a constant thread in Linda’s and my discussions, it seemed appropriate to write here, and to pass on my thoughts and questions.

Thinking about the future(s) of museums, you might say, is nothing new. Your are right. We all do it in a way when we set the course for the next years in programming, when a new board takes up its work or we compile financing plans. And there are, among others, change-makers like Jasper Visser and The Museum of the Future blog, or the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, whose thinkings are devoted to the future(s) on a regular basis.  However, in terms of museum conferences in Europe, it was the first that took on this topic in general and it seemed utterly appropriate to do this on neutral, Swiss ground.  

It all starts with questions
I loved how the whole conference was set up around questions. Questions cards were distributed on registration by mail long before the conference, and at the conference itself, on coffee tables and in the delegates bags. Speakers were asked a crisp question about the future(s) of their museum or museums in general first, before they presented. A whole booklet about the conference topic, published some weeks before and as a result of a workshop, comprises pages and pages of questions - some easy, some tough - about the status quo of your museum, how you assess this, what you wish for and where you might see room for improvement. Some of my favourites include:
  • What is your greatest weakness in terms of content, and how did it evolve?
  • Which offers with societal impact would you like to have in 20 years?
  • Do you actively ask your audience for feedback?
  • Would you be willing to run exhibitions and events solely for reasons of revenue increase?
  • How does the effort for communication relate to the one for content?
  • What is the role of individual, what of collaborative working?
  • Which image do you have of your own institution regarding its social and cultural relevance? Are you a preserver? A content provider? A stimulator of discourse? An opinion maker? A changer?
I believe that change starts with honest questioning, aloud or to yourself, and an open conversation; it continues with getting out of your comfort zone, scrutinizing what your are doing and why you are doing it, and if it's still in line with your ideas; it's about dreaming of where you want to go and some risk taking in leaving your own tracks in thinking and doing.

The whole setup of the conference acknowledged that there is no simple answer, and not the  one right answer for all museums. But rather very individual solutions, futures in plural, which requires knowing the individuality of your museum, first. And it is work. Or, as Isabelle Chassot, director at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, put it: Museums can't be updated like an app; their future(s) need to be negotiated with society and politics in a long, but rewarding process.

Future is not (only) about technology
Future scenarios are often equated with technological progress, but that's only one side of it. The concept discussed at the conference aimed at a broad mindset, as the sample questions above indicate. Of course, questions about the future(s) of museums can not do without tackling issues like digitalisation. But globalisation, changes in demography, individualisation, urbanisation, economization, and flexibilisation -- trends identified by futurologists -- play an equally important part. And they create much tension, e.g. between programming for content and/or audiences; between niche and/or mainstream, between the amateur and/or professional and so on.

We have the choice
One of the very best parts about the conference was the emphasis on the “we”. The full title of the conference read: Museum future(s): We have the choice. It places the responsibility, but also the obligation, into the hands of us, the museum professionals. It reminds us that there are different paths and options to be considered. And that the future is not exclusively determined from outside, but that instead we should not give it out of our hands and start the shaping the future today. This empowerment is remarkable especially in German speaking countries, where it is quite common to delegate responsibility and action to political institutions and public authorities as the main financiers of museums. Yes, they do have the power to influence the course, but they are certainly not the strongest force, if we don’t let them. So the message here is let's not get pulled, but rather let's push things forward ourselves.

The hard way from theory to practice
The morning of the first conference day was devoted to magnificent, comprehensive, mostly provocative and rather theoretical reflections on the general positioning of the museums of the future as well as the visions of the future in previous centuries and what we could learn from this for today. Pascal Griener from the University of Neuenburg reminded us to be aware of the ideological residues stemming from 19th century when discussing current and future museum concepts. Zeev Gourarier, director of the MUCEM, named the importance of objects and collections, interdisciplinary approaches and a return to enchantment as keys to museum futures.

The afternoon sessions were meant to be devoted to deeper dives and to move on to the practical side of things. However, these got stuck more or less in the contemporary. The session on content and audience comprised descriptions of current education projects and stood pretty much clear of the actual topic of the conference, the future, for which subjects like the prerogative of interpretation must be discussed.

What makes it so difficult to take a look beyond now and some general plans for the future? What does it need, in terms of institutional frameworks and/or personal requirements? How can the many good questions raised at the conference and in the booklet be a starting point for active considerations - and maybe change?

Basil Rogger from the Zurich University of the Arts and author of the booklet, believes that we need to develop a culture of dealing with the future: we need to take care, to be persistent, to have fun, to find ease, and to actually shape the future and have the belief to do so.

Do you agree? What does it take to be a visionary these days, especially in the face of wearing daily business and given that the institution concerned is in itself devoted to the past? 

Take it further
If you can read one of Switzerland’s languages (German, French or Italian) I highly recommend downloading the booklet ‘Museum Futures’ by the Swiss Museum Association, which is full of food for thought and many more questions than the ones above. 

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