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TrendsWatch 2017

September 26, 201826 September 2018

Museums and heritage organizations

Center for the Future of Museums (American Alliance of Museums)


Elizabeth E. Merritt

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Each year, the Center for the Future of Museums highlights trends that they believe are of significance to museums, based on their scanning and analysis. In 2017, these trends related to empathy, civil rights, artificial intelligence, involuntary migration, and agile design. Each essay outlines the theme, implications for society, implications for museums, and existing museum examples.

Noting that “empathy plays a vital role in civic participation and the functioning of democracy”, the report outlines “troubling evidence of a widespread decline in empathy”. Given that there is emerging evidence that “the immersive storytelling that takes place in museums can engender empathy”, the author argues that “museums’ inherent strengths position them to be effective ‘empathy engines’ helping people to understand the ‘other’ and reinforcing social bonds”. The author suggests that museums might consider valuing and measuring “their ability to teach empathy and other emotional skills” as well as creating “environments that foster conversations between strangers and meaningful encounters between people of different backgrounds”.

Regarding civil rights, the report argues that, “in addition to helping society navigate [the] next horizon of civil rights, museums have the opportunity to reflect on how assumptions about power, security, and order are embedded in their own operations”. The article suggests that museums might want to “address issues related to criminal justice explicitly in their exhibits and programming”, “take a position on the negative effects of current systems and the need for reform”, “examine their own hiring practices”, and “revisit their own security practices”.

Regarding artificial intelligence (AI), the author argues that “the coming era of AI holds both promise and peril” for society, promising to “fuel economic growth and make the world better in a host of ways” but also threatening to provoke “massive social and economic change”. For museums, AI might offer “the practical tools they need to manage their own swelling data sets, as well as new avenues for creativity”. In this situation, museums might consider using AI “to help the public plan their visit, book tickets, and explore online resources”, to manage the expected “massive scale of data in the 21st century”, and to “help create an informed citizenry that is prepared to make decisions about the use and boundaries of this emerging technology”.

Involuntary migration, according to the report, is an increasingly important societal trend, with large numbers of migrants fleeing persecution, economic collapse, food insecurity, or changing environmental conditions. In this situation, museums “can provide context and historical perspective around the migrations shaping their communities. And in so doing, they can promote the kinds of personal encounters, dialogues, and empathy that promote healing and ease the fears and tensions between refugees and established residents.” The report suggests that museums might want to use “storytelling to build empathy”, explore “what their own collections have to tell us about the history of migration and the evolution of communities”, “improve relations between migrants and host communities by inviting newcomers to share stories about objects that reflect their heritage”, “help refugees find jobs”, ensure “access to maker spaces”, and invite refugees “to share a meal, make music, or hang out in a friendly environment”.

Noting that “failure is a necessary part of a successful design process”, the author argues that there is a need to create “a climate of productive failure”, which involves valuing experimentation, “early input from the end user”, and risk. Museums are encouraged to embrace agile design, attempting “small, fast experiments, testing their success, and adjusting [business practices] accordingly”. Museums might consider introducing innovative design practices involving “small bets as a path toward innovation”, adopting “design thinking or another established model as [their] usual methodology for developing new exhibits, programs, and services”, and finding “ways to encourage productive risk taking”. However, the author cautions that “successful innovation projects need to be supported at the leadership level and embedded in the organizational culture”.

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