Our present digital landscape has already blurred the lines between public and private spaces, it would be safe to assume this trend will continue into the future. The museum as an institution will adapt to becoming highly personalised and the way we consume everything that a museum can offer will need to be packaged within the dynamics of such emerging markets.
Perhaps there is no single definition for the future museum but one that we carry in our pockets or watches. Which screen do we want to occupy is the big question? I’d want to be synonymous with the most dominant screen that has all the eyes & ears, is it going to remain to be our smartphones? Probably not. Let’s dedicate our time now to discovering in what way or form museums needs to be shaped that not just promotes inclusivity rather, allows for the museum to be included amidst the chaotic overload of things that continue to populate the digital landscape.
There is a gap in the market for a museum with no exhibitions.
Working in audience research, when I ask people what value they get from a museum experience, I always hear the same kind of thing. A story about an object, or an idea about the way the world works. This tells me something; that people come to museums for stories and ideas – not for exhibitions. Yet exhibitions are ‘what we do’, they are our primary product.
I believe that fundamentally, museums are content distribution businesses, and content businesses everywhere are undergoing massive transformations towards on-demand / access-over-ownership models (Netflix / Spotify). Museums are already halfway there with an established ‘access premium’ advantage for one-of-a-kind objects of significance.
If we follow the thread of the digital age forwards into the maturity of Internet-of-things / automation technology, I believe we will see the emergence of an entirely new class of museum. The on-demand museum.
This future museum will have far fewer (zero) exhibition teams and a great deal more interdisciplinary creatives, storytellers, interpreters, translators, concierges, chefs…. and robots. They will become hybrids of five-star hotels and swiss-bank vault viewing rooms.
– Robots (For Collection Management): Amazon own a company called Kiva Systems, whose robots operate the warehouse inventory and order fulfillment systems of Amazon in a way that treats a system of modular shelves like most majestic game of never-ending-chess you could ever imagine. Museums are already feeling the pinch with regards to space. A future museum will solve this problem by doing away with many and varied compacti, allowing collection transfers to be handled by kin of Kiva. Architecturally challenged institutions may even reclaim gallery space because exhibitions are redundant. Storage facilities will be redeveloped, even museums who choose to stick with exhibitions will benefit from the rapid random-access to their collections.
– Collection As Database – On-Demand, Snackable Content: A digitised and automated collection automatically updates the availability of items and tracks important factors such as light exposure, or rest-time required before next viewing. These variables will become part of the a new museum visitors literacy. It is highly likely that most visitors will pre-arrange their visits – often many months in advance. If a collection item has associated content or articles, they will be displayed on the in-room monitors for the visitor to engage if they desire. A cousin of Netflix’s content algorithm will match users with items they may enjoy, and schedule conservation works based on collection usage.
– Five Star Experience: A museum of the future will not have lines or crowds. There will be no tacky, wasteful single-use paraphernalia. Guests will have booked in advance – much like hotels today – and be greeted by a concierge who is expecting them, knows their preferences, and can anticipate their needs. The museum building itself will be barely recognisable. Great halls now replaced with private rooms, appointed to an unrecognisable level of luxury – a perk of consolidating the exhibition design budget into refurbishment. From individual item viewing or research term rooms all the way to mixed use function space and dining – there will be a room for any purpose, at any time of day. Rates will vary accordingly, however standard inclusions may offer a drink on arrival and 15-20mins with an expert generalist collection interpreter who assists visitors with their first selections or tells the story an item pre-arranged for viewing. Additional services include an interpretation officer or storyteller on hand at all times, or a seven course degustation – with matched objects.
– Set free through insight: And finally – museums will have succeeded in overcoming two of their greatest existential risks; collection use and relevance, and audience insight. Their multi-million item collections will be mobile, accessible and monitored to ensure utilisation. But perhaps more importantly; museums will have available at their fingertips, precise customer information, collection preference information and a variety of other data-points on their operations that have never before been considered – let alone measured.
I don’t expect every museum of the future to be like the one described here, but for those willing to invest in designing a better business model for museums – the rewards are waiting.