2013 Trends to Watch

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director
The American Alliance of Museums recently released its 2013 ‘Trendswatch’ document. The ‘annual foresight report’ picks out social, economic and technological changes and suggests how museums might respond.

The 2012 trends were crowdsourcing, changes to tax exemptions, operating outside the walls of the museum, new forms of philanthropy, the challenges and opportunities of an aging population, augmented reality, and changes in education. The 2013 trends contain expansions on earlier trends and new entries. They are:

The changing shape of giving

Time was when civic amenities such as museums, the opera, orchestras and nonprofit theaters attracted charitable gifts because … well, because. … This stability may be at an end, so museums need to act now to engage philanthropists who are bringing new motivations and expectations to their support.

The report authors – Elizabeth Merritt and Philip Katz – say that donors (especially women and younger donors) are looking for proof that their contributions really are making a difference. They identify this strategic or outcome-oriented philanthropy as part of “a cultural climate of accountability, testing, metrics and return on investment”. Donors set goals and want to see organisations pursue these goals using tactics perhaps more familiar in the software and policy worlds: evidence-based decision-making, inspect and adapt cycles.

Merrit and Katz also note that some foundations are moving their donations from large, national programmes to smaller, local or regional efforts that make a demonstrable  change in their immediate communities.

3-D printing

As 3-D printing continues to move towards being something you might feasibly have in your office or home, the trend appears in the report. Katz and Merrit pull out a number of things cheap and accessible printers may enable, from ‘unleashing creativity’ and being incorporated in educational activities to quickly making custom-mounts for collection objects.

The convergence of museums and formal education

This trend also picks up on one described in 2012. Merritt and Katz paint a picture where academic credentials are being re-thought and suggest education in the future could be made up of ‘microcredentials’ earned in difference places and different ways.

The growth of online education is part of this trend, and the authors bring up a notion new to me – digital badges:

A kind of virtual credit that learners can display on a digital résumé, webpage, LinkedIn profile, etc., with an embedded link to information about exactly what the credit means and what the learner accomplished in order to earn it. (Digital badges can also reflect real-world experiences, which is the focus of Badges for Vets, designed to help translate military training into civilian credentials.)

Katz and Merritt see the potential for museums to move from the ‘fringes of the formal education system’ and start providing these microcredentials. For an early example, see the Cooper Hewitt’s DesignPrep programme, recently given an award to support digital badges.

Networked objects and attentive spaces

This is the trend that I find most … discomforting? intrusive? … as an exhibition visitor myself. Katz and Merritt write

The “Internet of Things” and the development of location- and context-aware technologies are pointing the way to a new order of complex interactions that will erase the gap between networked digital devices and the physical world of objects and human beings. Soon your mobile smart device will tell you not just “you are two blocks from the art museum” but “a painting you may like is in the next gallery, and a reproduction is available in the museum store,” while automatically downloading the catalogue record. Personalized, proactive and responsive networks could give museum ‘interactivity’ a whole new meaning.

Katz and Merritt also identify indoor GPS as a related trend:

… a cluster of technologies that allow people to map their locations while indoors and access location-specific information. With some of the emerging systems, sensors can also gather information about people navigating a space, which can then be compiled and “mined” to learn new things about human behavior. (One creepy manifestation: stores that use mannequins to collect intel on their customers.)

Potential applications for museums include extensions to interactivity in displays and exhibitions; the ability to use sensors to monitor collection items at a much more granular level, and proximity marketing (where you opt in – hopefully – to receive personalised messages when your presence or availability is detected).


Coming right after this picture of being digitally bombarded, Merritt and Katz identify the desire to be disconnected as another emergent trend. This directly ties to the museum’s long-held place as a space for quiet contemplation.

Interestingly, in their ‘What this means for museums’ section on this trend, the authors sound a downbeat note: will museums have to limit where people can and can’t use devices, ban or direct phones to be switched off? One semi-positive observation is that the trend could be advantageous for museums on small budgets who can’t win in the connectivity race – by emphasising the idea of respite and concentration, could museums find another way to market themselves?

The return to the city

I don’t have data on whether this is a New Zealand trend, but Katz and Merritt note the ‘reverse exodus’ back to the city in America. Young people move to the city for employment, retired people for the ease of transport and facilities, and the ‘creative class’ for the sake of the city itself. As the authors note, museums play a part in attracting all three groups, and could benefit from the associated trend for smaller living spaces by providing public spaces for relaxing and socialising. The full report is available here and really does make for good reading. Enjoy!

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