Museum Next NYC

In November, Carolina Garcia from our Toronto office, attended the latest MuseumNext conference in New York City featuring “The Future of Museums”. While topics and presenters ranged widely, two threads clearly emerged: the undeniably important and exciting role that technology can play in museums and the shift of the traditional ‘top-down’ model of museum management to a community oriented “bottom-up” approach.

Illustrating this process of revitalization and innovative thinking, Laura Flusche from the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) began her discussion with the concept of ‘Design Thinking’. The main premise of ‘Design Thinking’ at MODA is simple: ask the audience and surrounding community what they want. It is this principle, Flusche explained, that has provided the driving force behind the museum’s evolution into the collaborative and publicly engaged institution it is today. Flusche continued, “Visitor input is shaping what the museum is and does”. With visitor input, the museum has refocused its purpose to integrate the audience and community into its vision, mission and initiatives.

In a similar fashion, Derby Museums (Derby, UK), have also turned to community input and creative thinking to reinvent the museum into a community hub for experimentation, learning, collaboration and innovation that is dynamic and engaging. As Hannah Fox, Director of Projects and Programmes at Derby Museums described in her presentation, “Community engagement is embedded in all aspects of Derby Museums’ work.”

Continuing along the lines of this ethos of community and collaboration, the Museum of Communication, located in Berne, Switzerland, discussed their recent launch of a program characterized by “dynamic curation.” In this program, a group of trained “communicators” work in the exhibition space to connect with audiences and gather input that is funnelled into the future production of relevant and engaging material, while also reducing the gap between the curatorial department (traditionally ‘back of house’) and the visitor. The Historic Royal Palaces (UK) is similarly focused on gathering audience input, collaboration and prototyping to direct future planning but has done so through the creation of an R&D department. Lead by Tim Powell, this project connects the many sites of the Historic Royal Palaces through fun, diverse, and engaging programming.

Speaking to technology, AR and VR were at the centre of many presentations discussing creative forms of learning and connecting with audiences through the creation of enhanced immersive experiences.  As Dan Ayoub from the Microsoft Mixed Reality Education project described, the use of technologies like AR and VR are transforming how learning takes place in museums and the classroom by providing new tools to access content and promote learning. In the era of constant connection, made possible through technology, museums are facing the challenge of how to introduce technology in a way that prompts deeper engagement rather than over-stimulation or distraction. To this end, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and Impossible Things studio (Toronto) shared ReBlink, a fun, creative and engaging project using AR to connect audiences to paintings in the museum in a way that can create a deeper connection with the artwork, promote understanding, and increase their accessibility to a wider audience.

Beyond potential learning and experiential outcomes, the use of technology was also addressed in terms of its potential to bring structural change and innovation in museum operations, management, and collections care. Emphasizing how little museum technology has actually changed in the last 20 years, Chad Weinard, of the Williams College Museum of Art, closed the conference by illustrating how technology can encourage the transformation of a museum’s core infrastructure. To explore this idea further, Weinard shared the results of an exhibition project that used data gathered from the museum’s collections management system. Using this example, he demonstrated, not only the possibilities, but also the importance of pursuing structural innovation in museum practice, not only for the health of internal operations, but also for greater audience engagement, access and programming.

Combining the two primary threads that emerged over the course of the conference, Dr. Natalia Grincheva, from the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne, introduced the Museum Softpower Map project. This project maps partnerships in 80 countries around the world. Discussing this project, Dr. Grincheva pointed to the importance of productive partnerships between universities and museums to continue the creation of innovative initiatives, programs, and products. She proposes creating a co-design museum through collective work between museums, audiences, artists, academics, creatives start-ups and investors. The university partnered with the Centre for the Moving Image to create an incubator dedicated to creative technology and cultural entrepreneurship.

Over my time at MuseumNext, I listened to stories and examples from presenters about what the current climate of change and innovation is coming to mean for museums in the 21st century. While concepts and ideas about technology often took centre stage, many presenters also discussed current efforts to rethink and revitalize the working culture of the museum sector through bottom-up rather than top-down approaches to management, business development, programming, and exhibition strategies.

With positive results expressed by presenters ranging from increased and more meaningful forms of community engagement and collaboration, increasingly productive partnerships, cross-disciplinary work, and the use of prototyping, experimentation, hubs and incubators, the turn towards bottom-up approaches has successfully demonstrated the value in reformulating old models while opening up space for further creativity.

I left MuseumNext thinking that the seed of innovation rests at the core of thinking creatively and differently about the way we do and understand things. Changing structures, working collectively, and shifting perspectives opens doors for many unexpected possibilities; it reimagines the game and brings more players into the field to create a richer experience for all. With this in mind, I began to think about the ways in which Haley Sharpe is already contributing to this changing landscape and what else we could be doing to continue to push the envelope.