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Museumsinsel mit Bode Museum und Fernsehturm in Berlin, Deutschland

Future-proofing museums pt 2: controversy and diversity

How will future museums win the battle for hearts, minds and pockets?

Future-proofing museums: Elizabeth Merritt

In the second part of Blooloop’s interview with Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, she discusses how future museums will need to win the battle for hearts, minds and pockets

In the first part of her discussion Elizabeth Merritt discussed how the Center for the Future of Museums came into being and how it is helping museums future-proof themselves.  She ended that debate by pointing out the gender imbalance in the museum sector.

She now develops that discussion and argues that museums need to become more diverse. They must also become more responsive to the needs of their communities if they want to extend their reach.  She then moves on to discuss technology and further factors that affect the museums of the future.

The museum audience

Museums have historically attracted a predominantly middle class audience while a wide swathe of society had regarded them as irrelevant.  Merritt says this is still a factor today.   “Research suggests that 20 – 30 percent of the American public just don’t have museums on their radar. They assume museums are not places for them, and they don’t go.  Research from Reach Advisors suggests that about 10 percent of the American public actively dislike museums.”

She considers whether museums really have reached their maximum audience. She also asks whether they can reach more people by changing what they do and how they do it.  “By listening more closely to what people want and need, can we reach a larger segment of the public?”

Should museums be controversial?

One way to reach more people could, she says, be to become more controversial, she says.  But should museums engage with controversial debates and topics?  Is it really their role?

Merritt reframes the question. “Let’s ask first, what makes a subject controversial? It is usually because it revolves around something people think is really important.  They are wrestling with how to deal with the issue, and have concluded that it aligns with their values, with the way they want to shape their community, and their lives.

tate modern view tweet guardian

“So: why should museums become engaged in issues that are very important to their communities?  I think when you phrase it that way, it becomes easier to answer.

In the past, however, the answer may have been very different. Historically, museums have maintained a distance from events. They have waited until historians, with the benefit of the perspective that time gives, have pronounced on them, expressing an opinion and enabling discussion. It’s a process that can take decades.

“Within that mainstream approach, there will always be museums that deal more contemporaneously with issues in their communities.  For example, the Newark Museum and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum always were about community response.

Relevant and responsive

“In the last decade we have seen more museums realising they can be more relevant and responsive to their communities.  There is a valuable role they can play in helping people think about and work through difficult and important issues. And those may be controversial issues. That is part of what flags them as important.”

renato mariotti auschwitz museum tweet jpeg

Merritt says that one key resource museums have is that they are highly trusted.  She points out that surveys of trust amongst the American public show that museums are among the most trusted institutions and sources of information.

Good museums, she says, cultivate deep community connections.  She cites the example of the Levine Museum of the New South, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The community was facing unrest following the shootings of young black men by law enforcement.  Rather than waiting for 20 years to see what historians would say about it, the museum leapt straight in.

“The museum said, ‘We can do this: we already had an exhibit for which we were planning on a longer timeframe about the killings of young black men.  Let’s fast track it, and bring the community in. Within just a few months we can roll out something to help the community grieve and process and think about how to respond.’

Three visitors watching an animated video

Museums as community resources

The problems for museums, says Merritt, is that they have to compete with a wide variety of other forms of entertainment. This is particularly so in an age of streaming digital content.  And, yes, she says, they are considered a form of entertainment.

“Museums have to realise that they are only one of an ever-growing array of options,” she says. “Even if you want live experiences, we are in a time of burgeoning, robust live arts in the community. So if it’s just about entertainment, that’s a difficult competition to win.”

She thinks museums are more likely to succeed when they focus on helping people and communities grapple with issues that affect their everyday lives.

Yayoi Kusama. Spirits Pumpkins Descended into Heavens at Museum Macan indonesia
Yayoi Kusama. Spirits Pumpkins Descended into Heavens at Museum Macan

An outward focus

“I think it starts by creating museum practice that is outwardly focused,” she says. “I wrote a blog post once about a semi-humorous museum classification scheme that I invented. It was about the omphalic classification scheme, where omphalos means belly button.

“The more I think about it, the more I think that, while it’s a little flip, it’s true: museums are like belly buttons, in that they tend to be either ‘innies’ or ‘outies’.

Children’s museums tend to be outies

“The ‘innies’ tend to be started because the people who founded them, and sometimes the people who continue to govern and run them, are passionate about a topic.  The classic example of this is transportation museums, train museums, aeroplane museums. They shouted: ‘We love this big stuff, it’s beautiful, it’s great, we have a fabulous collection of trains, you should come look at it.’  And, to a certain extent, people will.

“However the other way to found a museum is by being an ‘outie’; by saying: ‘What is a need in our community that could be filled by being a museum?’

Children’s museums tend to be outies, she says. “They tend to be founded by people who say, ‘We think our community would be better if children had a place to go after school, if there were a place for mums with young children to hang out and socialise with each other, and have rich developmental experiences.’”

de Havilland Aircraft Museum

Outie and Inie museums

But being an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’ is not, she stresses, inherently dependent on the type of museum

“There are large general museums, the Newark Museum in New Jersey, for example, founded by John Cotton Dana, that from its very foundation was an outie museum, asking how museums could make the community a better and richer place for the people who live there.

nina simon santa cruz museum of art and history

“And there are museums that have become outie museums because it was clear that that was how they were going to survive.”  She cites the example of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in California.

“Frankly, it was a struggling small city museum when it hired Nina Simon  (pictured) about a decade ago. She looked at it and said, ‘Well, we could sit here and just be an art museum and a history museum, and continue to have very few people walk in the door, or we could say, how can this museum help Santa Cruz become a very vibrant, better place? How can we help groups out in the community do their jobs better, celebrate their passions?’

“And so the museum that was an innie became an outie.  Of course you can’t tell until the very long run how these things come out but I would argue that, in the short run, she has revitalised the museum, put it on a better financial footing, and improved its standing overall with the community.”

Should museums be free?

Could making museum entrance free help attract a wider demographic?  It’s an issue that’s being hotly debated at the moment.  “It is a critical strategic question for museums in terms of figuring out their finances and staffing,” says Merritt. “However if you back up and look at the bigger picture and the meta data, all of the research suggests that going free doesn’t reach a more diverse audience. It just means that the people who already like you come more often.”

She cites a pioneering ten-year initiative, Createquity, by Ian David Moss. He was then a student at the Yale School of Management.

“At one point Createquity did this deep dive,” says Merritt. “It looked at a number of sources of data about leisure time behaviour and attitude towards museums.  It concluded that the main reason people don’t go to museums is not one of economics.  Nor was it an inherent inability to get to museums. It was simply that they would rather watch TV. They didn’t want to go to museums: they weren’t interested in them.”

Which brings us back to the question of relevance.

Lack of diversity is a real problem for the sector

Merritt says that museums are increasingly out of step with the demographic diversity of the communities they are trying to serve. “80 percent of museums studies graduates are white; 80 percent are female,” says Merritt.

“When I’m out talking to museum studies classes, I’m not seeing that other 20 percent.  And yet museums have told me that they need to hire people who can authentically reflect and represent the more diverse audiences they are trying to serve.  So we have a need to recruit more diverse staff. That is turning out to be an incredibly hard thing for us to tackle, for a lot of reasons.

“Whether it is the governing authorities or the staff, we need to diversify the people behind-the-scenes. We need to better serve the people we want to reach.  It goes back to the question of who is going to museums and who is not going to museums, and who considers us to be irrelevant.”

future museums nobel museum
The Nobel Museum

Technology and the power to transform

Interestingly for a futurologist, Merritt maintains that museums can be over-focused on technology.  She says it occupies an outsized place in our attention.

“One of the things futurists do is to push people to take a broad look at the way the world is changing. Frankly, left to themselves, people will always obsess on technology. It is the same whether it was the motorcar a hundred years ago or digital today.”

She says we obsess about technology because it changes so rapidly. And also because it has the power to change every aspect of daily life profoundly, in a very short period of time.  “Fifty years ago, if I were listening to music, how would I be listening to music? How would I visit with a friend? How would I decide what I was going to do tonight?” she asks.  “Technology has really transformed how we do those social things.”

Looking beyond the technology

However, she says, by focusing purely on technology, we run the risk of missing what really creates disruptive, profound change. “It masks that the major underlying changes are social, cultural, economic and environmental. They are related to the policies we create to regulate our world.”

Therefore Merritt pushes people to look beyond the technology to identify the underlying changes (what we want to do; how we want to interact with the world) that are driving the technology.

“For example, at present the newsfeeds are filled with scandals about Facebook and privacy and data theft. Well, what drove people to jump onto Facebook so eagerly when it was launched about a decade ago? People increasingly have social networks that extend beyond their physical reach.

“A lot of people don’t live in the town they grew up in. Or they don’t live in the neighbourhood where they can easily connect with the friends they made at work, or at university.  They want to stay in touch with these people.  Facebook took off because it filled a real social need. It reflected changes in demographics, in geography, in work, in life and education. I think that those changes are just as interesting as the technology that arose to satisfy the itch.”

A virtual tour great works of art inspired by King David. Tower of David. Credit. Naftali Hilger
Credit. Naftali Hilger

We need to talk about apps

Nonetheless, she says, technology is clearly an important part of modern museums.  But museums need to use it carefully and with thought. They should not just jump on the bandwagon, having technology for technology’s sake.

As a case in point she talks about apps.  “Three or four years ago, everything was about apps: what is the app you are creating to draw attention to specialised content for your museums?” says Merritt. “It was just the cool thing that everybody was jumping on. However, already, in this short span of time, people are beginning to ask, are we in the post-app era?”

Museums are pivoting away from specialised apps

Around 99.9 percent of all apps created are already dead.  Those that remain are, for the most part, locked up in two sources: the Apple Store and Google Play.  Merritt cites data collected by The Studio at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. It is from their field study Benchmarking Visitor Behaviors and Mobile Device Usage in the Museum.

The study found that less than two percent of visitors had a museum mobile app on their device. However a massive 98 percent of them were sending text messages while they were at the museum.

They concluded that barriers to the specialised apps lie in their creation, their testing and, overall, the fact they need continual upgrading to remain current.

Mona O app

Barriers to apps

Merritt points to the example of The Museum of London. “They put out these fabulous beta-reality apps a few years ago. However, already they don’t work. The museum hasn’t had the time and resources to redo the coding. This is neccessary to make them compatible with the latest versions of android or Apple phones.”

A further barrier, she says, is that visitors need to know about the app.  Then they have to be willing to take the time to download it.  This may lead to issues of whether they have a sufficiently robust connection.  They either have to download it before they get to the museum, or find a connection and do it while they’re at the museum, when, she points out, they would really rather be focusing on the museum visit itself.  Then they have to figure out how to use it.  Finally, it needs to be sufficiently compelling to motivate them to take all these steps.

“So that may not be working so well, on the whole,” she says.

She says that many museums are now pivoting away from specialised apps.  Instead they are seeking to exploit the platforms people are already using, whether that is Facebook Messenger, Instagram, texts.  The question is:  How can we create specialised mechanisms to reach people through those channels?

Sir David Attenborough Yorkshire Museum Anthony Chappel-Ross immotion group

The rise of chat bots and artificial intelligence

Merritt is currently looking at how museums are beginning to experiment with chat bots.  They are using artificial intelligence programs in natural language programming to create methods of interacting with people via chat.

“At the Brooklyn Museum they actually have an app, the ASK app. It allows people wandering through the galleries to use the app to ask questions. But there are real people answering the questions. They are trained and paid to sit behind the scenes and, essentially, chat with people via the app.”

Merritt sees this as a chance for artificial intelligence and chat bots to come to the fore.  “You could take that kind of functionality out of the specialised app into a more widely used platform.  You could have 900 people visiting the National Gallery, all chatting, without having to have this huge bank of people at the other end texting in the answers.”

ask app brooklyn museum.

Start with people’s curiosity

It offers a huge improvement on the old system of  worksheets. This saw children so focused on answering the worksheet questions that they hardly looked up. In the antithesis of engagement, they therefore missed everything else in the museum.

“You open the whole thing up by starting with people’s curiosity, and then responding to what they want to know,” says Merritt.  She also points out that, by doing this digitally, you have the opportunity to collect good data. “You can find out what people ask, what interests them, what do they pay attention to, what do they not pay attention to?”  The vast majority of people have “outstandingly few concerns about data privacy” and are perfectly willing to share personal information.

Tower of david museum Jerusalem

“You can begin to do audience segmentation. You can identify the interests of different segments of the population:  the different things they want to know; the differences in how they want to interact with you.”

Education and finance are major issues

Aside from these issues there are other important considerations that Merritt says are affecting the museum sector, both today and into the future.

One huge challenge centres on education.  “It’s a challenge that faces the entire country,” says Merritt.  “Our whole system of P-12 education is struggling, and, I would argue, failing. As a futurist, I read the forecasting from the education field.  I look at all of the money and effort and time we are putting into experiments that are making marginal if any improvements to a system that is not meeting the needs of the kids coming up through the schools.

“It stretches from employers who can’t hire the people they want to hire, to the young people who don’t feel equipped to find productive and meaningful work when they get out of school.

elizabeth merritt with dog future museums.

She feels this is an area in which future museums – with their experiential play-based, passion-based learning can help.  “In our own small way we are doing a better job than the formal school system is. So how can we take that up, and scale it to a point where we are serving more young people and can be a mainstream part of the next century of formal education?  It’s possible that this may take place more often in places like museums than in the things we currently think of as schools.”

Inventing new income streams

Inevitably the next question is one of finance.  “It varies from museum to museum,” says Merritt. “However the division of income that supported museums in the last century, whether it was an income or contributed revenue or government support, is unravelling.  It’s happening for all sorts of reasons:  because of competition, because of changes in the economy writ large, because of the philosophy driving philanthropy.

“So we are having to try and invent new income streams. We are trying to both tweak the things we used to do and just do them better.  So, for example, that could be collecting data and doing a better job of digital marketing.  It’s something that can up your attendance and traditional income streams.  More importantly, we need to look for new ways to get people to value and support the resources that we have built on the work that we do.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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