Museum Trends for 2014

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director
The 2014 TrendsWatch report for museums is out—let's take a look at what might be coming our way.

The annual TrendsWatch report from the Center for the Future of Museums (part of the American Alliance of Museums) is a document I watch out for every year as a way of getting a feel for which social and technological trends might be becoming important for museums.

The 2013 TrendsWatch report identified changes in philanthropy, 3-D printing, microcredentialing (a new way of earning qualifications in bite-sized chunks), the Internet of Things, disconnecting from digital experiences and the urban renaissance as six key trends for museums to be aware of in their planning.

The 2014 report, written by Center for the Future of Museums director Elizabeth Merritt, shares with the 2013 report a focus on technology, especially the explosion of data and related privacy concerns; education has fallen away a little, and philanthropy has turned towards social business. The six trends:

  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Multi-sensory Experiences
  • Big Data
  • Privacy
  • The Sharing Economy
  • Robots

So, let’s dig a little into what each of these trends suggests for museums ...

Social entrepreneurship

This is an expansive term, but the report's focus is on “for-profit businesses that explicitly factor mission delivery into their bottom line”. Rather than having a social good outcome (such as TOMS' one-for-one programme) these are businesses “structured around providing a product or service that addresses social or environmental needs”. Merritt gives the example of the D’Eri family in America, who rather than setting up a charity to provide jobs or training for autistic adults, established the Rising Tide Car Wash, a business designed to make the most of the abilities of autistic people.

The rise of social business is paralleled by a new generation of donors who want to approach giving less as charity and more as an investment - see the Real Good, Not Feel Good approach.

The report suggests that the rise of the for-profit social good business as a potential disruptor in the traditional three sectors (government, for-profit/business, not-for-profit/charity). In America there has recently already been a lot of discussion of the comparative ‘worth’ of cultural institutions and services compared to health, education and other non-profits focused on social services. There’s a risk that cultural organisations will be seen as a hobby for the wealthy and undeserving of public support.

There is also the question of scale: “social enterprise generally assumes that any good thing can and should be scaled up”, while museums have traditionally focused on providing unique and localised experiences (for another view, see Michael Edson’s Museums in an Age of Scale). Or how about if businesses start getting in on museums' tradition exhibition and education turf? Many of the exhibition and education opportunities currently offered by museums (for free or charged) could be replicated by commercial operations.

Museums’ point of difference in this context are the collections we hold in trust for the public, yet many "haven’t been taught to value, and pay for, the collections behind the scenes.”

So, what might this mean for museums? We could look at scaling up our successful programmes and services, especially using the internet to provide access (MOMA, for example, has partnered with Coursera, who offer massive open online education courses). And it’s suggested that in order to create sustainable operations, we should look at charging for services we might otherwise offer for free, underwritten by donors and grants.

How about another example? Here’s one to wrap your head round: Gore Place, a historic house and estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, runs a small farm complete with sheep and goats.The farm is intended to raise a profit and they do run farm stalls in various places, but they actually make more selling tickets for various farm activities. They also gave 6,000 pounds of vegetables to local community kitchens last year.

Multi-sensory experiences

It’s time for museums to appeal to all the senses. New technology makes capturing and presenting all sorts of sensory experiences easier (there are interesting developments in scent in particular: take Amy Radcliffe’s proposed ‘Madeleine’, which would let you take a “snapshot” of a smell you were experiencing and then send it off to a lab to be recreated).

Museums are taking part in this trend already—see, for example, touch tours for visually impaired people. The TrendWatch report predicts this is a growing area for museums, turning what has traditionally been a visual experience into an experience that incorporates sound, smell, touch and taste.

Many artists - especially sound artists—have been operating in this area already: people might remember Janet Cardiff’s exquisite The Forty Part Motet at City Gallery Wellington a few arts festivals ago, where 40 speakers arranged in an otherwise empty space play back each individual member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir warming up for then singing Thomas Tallis’s ‘Spem in Alium’. Another example would be the subtlemob at the recent New Zealand Festival in Wellington, where you downloaded an MP3 of instructions and then gathered on Cuba Street at a set time to follow them, everyone acting together but alone. 

This is an area where I think museums are actually on the forefront of the trend—which isn’t even really a trend, if you’re working with contemporary artists, but just helping artists present the projects they want to present. Over summer, for example, here at The Dowse we had Peter Robinson’s Tribe Subtribe exhibition, the major aspect of which involved sitting on a concrete floor and threading nubbly felt rings onto smooth aluminum poles.

Big data

90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated in the last two years. So much of our traditional print information is now going online, plus we’re filling the world with texts, images, sounds and videos at an almost incomprehensible rate. Big data is used in marketing, policing, investing and more—and it’s also creating a new workforce of programmers and interpreters.

At the same time that we jump on data trends (like the quantified self movement) we struggle over how data should be collected, discarded, and used (more on this in the next trend).

While museums aren’t really engaging in big data yet (more medium-sized data), there are opportunities for us to use data collection to better run our operations—from exhibition design to marketing to how many front of staff house we have on during a wet summer weekday compared to a winter school holiday day.

The big news in data and museums over the past year has been the Dallas Museum of Art, which removed its entry charge and introduced a new membership model where visitors trade their visit data for “free” basic membership. The initiative has attracted vast swathes of media and sector coverage. The system lets members gain points (which can be exchanged for rewards) by checking into galleries, taking part in activities and attending programmes; in return, the DMA is gaining information about who visits their galleries, where they go, and what they do, which helps them put together more targeted marketing campaigns and more compelling cases for funders.


Tracking and surveillance have become constant topics of conversation, media coverage, and protest; from the rubbish-bins in London that tracked phone signals to using facial-recognition technology in shops to drive personalised pricing offers.

One of the report’s interesting observations is that “digital data is one of the few resources increasing, rather than being depleted, by human activity”, and this raises many deep questions about how and when data we create (knowingly or unknowingly) is collected and used. Museums need to find a comfortable and acceptable line on these many questions, between convenience and creepiness for visitors.

For example, indoor GPS sensors can tell us where visitors are in museums and let us push relevant information to their phones.There are benefits to these technologies, and there are many opportunities for backlash. Museums are held in a high position of trust by the public and to be frank my skin creeps at the thought of my visits to other museums being tracked in any way.

Another aspect of privacy we’re going to have to negotiate is artists who use data and surveillance technologies in their work. The report cites a recent case at the Jewish Museum, who decided to remove photographs from an exhibition after receiving complaints from men pictured in them. The photos had been collected by the artist, Marc Adelman, from a dating site for gay men; the Museum made the decision on the grounds of complex considerations around people’s expectations of privacy; the artist disagreed with the Museum’s decision, saying a work like his was an entirely appropriate way to explore those very concerns.

The Sharing Economy

Collaborative consumption—"creating profit from underused resources". The report points to shifting attitudes in ownership, with access starting to trump possession and reuse, reduce, recycle becoming less a mantra than a way of living. As with so many things, the internet has introduced new scale to our ability to move match sellers and buyers, owners and borrowers.

Sharing is happening with everything from spare rooms (Airbnb) to local knowledge (Vayable). What might this mean for museums? How about a return to the days when artworks were loaned for household use, as they were in New Zealand through public libraries in the 1950s? How about museums making irregularly used equipment (carpentry tools, projectors) available for community rental?


Yeah, we were promised jetpacks, but this year TrendsWatch suggests we might really “be on the brink of a ‘Cambrian explosion’ in robotic evolution". The 21st century has seen the development of smaller, more mobile robots used in all sorts of ways, from nursing care to pack mules. Work continues on making robots that can read and express human emotions (see 'Her' for a fantastic depiction of a seamless human/software interface).

So, is it really time for museums to start thinking about how robots can be bedded into museums—from automated night security guards to remote school visits? The report gives the example of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, whose robot Pablito is used to assist with conservation work, taking hundreds of detailed photographs of paintings undergoing restoration.

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