Museums 2019 : A Briefing from the Center for the Future of Museums Release date: October 6, 2019

This is CFM’s tenth annual report on trends shaping the museum field and American society. In the coming year, CFM will work with influential, innovative thinkers from all sectors to help museums explore how to help their communities face these challenges. To contribute to working groups exploring these issues, email with your name and contact information and tell us which issues you are interested in addressing.

Executive SummaryEdit

Changing AudiencesEdit

[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

Museums face enormous challenges and opportunities in responding to national upheavals and demographic shifts. They are struggling to learn about and serve the growing migrant populations flooding American cities. This influx of political, environmental and economic refugees has caused considerable conflict and strained community cohesion. How can museums help build bridges between new and old? How can they help economically fragile new residents build stable lives? Is that their role?

Some museums have risen to the challenge by opening up their buildings and grounds as places of refuge for internally displaced populations fleeing ecological disasters. Others have formed bridges between refugees and their places of origin, helping their new neighbors remember and cherish their lost homes, possessions, and communities. For these new populations, museums are vital places for comfort and rejuvenation.

For museums, these new audiences present the opportunity to make their mission and resources relevant in new ways. Given the fact that their needs are so dire, curators find themselves struggling to protect the collections, while at the same time finding new stories and perspectives on culture and life that they had previously not imagined. This new world has substantially changed the role of the curator and the audience.


Museum Community Story Wall

With the technological ability to spread and share stories (every museum has a local story wall now), the bridge between academia and reality has become stronger. Theoretical models are stretched, iterated, or, given the base needs of the population, thrown out altogether.

What does it mean to have a museum when your needs for food, shelter and community are not being met? Some would say the same as having refuge in a house of worship. The spiritual or intangible dimension of life feeds and soothes in times of crisis. That said, curators and museums are very sensitive to the times. Also, with budget cuts, etc., they have suspended any new physical shows, but allow digital art to be updated as power and secure internet access allow.

Each institution allows the transient and changing audiences to leave their mark. At the same time, they continue to protect the works and culture of the community they serve.


[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

The traditional school trip, one of the mainstays of museum visitorship, has practically disappeared due to the prevalence of epidemic disease (notably the rapid spread of Respiratory Distress Syndrome [ReDS]) and the rising expense of transportation. Schools also have fewer discretionary funds, as money is diverted to pay increased food and fuel costs and to hire more teachers to deal with classrooms swelled by migrants and refugees. Furthermore, museum visitation overall is down due to multiple factors. People avoid congregating in public places, fearing the spread of ReDS. Many people don’t know when museums will be open, given restricted and irregular hours due to power shortages. For these reasons, museums have increased their web presence, video conferencing, digital learning, and have become on-line knowledge centers providing access to trustworthy, reliable, knowledgeable information for life long learning. While some efforts are hampered by the increasing level of cyber-vandalism, public confidence in online content provided by museums has significantly increased and major foundations as well as some national governments have provided resources, both financial and technology-based to insure that on-line museums are available to all. Studies show that access to trustworthy information decreases social stress and enables people to have confidence to move forward and undertake critical local projects.

Building on their ethos of public trust, and their natural dexterity with informal education, museums became a new educational threshold for many who could not enter schools or universities due to power shortages, disease, or economic hardship.

In 2015, large museums began setting up satellite locations around their metropolitan areas- built on the model of the Science Spot. Local or community museums, having spent the last 6 years embracing the social web, and building partnerships with large institutions, were uniquely positioned to meet the needs of their communities and had a much smaller environmental footprint. They developed deep ties with their communities, and as a result had advocates. When the power and energy crises hit, they were already within walking or biking distance to many of those that they served, and had a passionate user group their to help them install solar power and greywater systems.

geographical museum visitation models

In areas where museums could not provide a physical presence, they built on the success of Science Cafes from 2004-2010, and began outreach efforts. They went into private homes and companies to give informal talks about culture, community, and were expert at using objects as points of understanding. This movement provided succor to the angst the general public was experiencing, and made the museum the visitor, and the public, the museum.

The transformative "museum experience" had been primarily a mental experience- sometimes social, sometimes in isolation. Thus the definition of experience became what was experienced in the mind and recorded online, rather than located in a place. The web of connections that visitors made around art, science, and culture also became a primary vehicle for visitors to make sense of what they were seeing or experiencing. This documented, searchable, shared experience became the architecture, and the experience of the art or ideas, the exhibits.

Mass ClosingsEdit

[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

The American Association of Museums continues to document the growing number of museums that have closed or had to relocate. After a decade of concerted effort to tackle the unmanageable number of historic houses in the country, only 1 in 10 remains a nonprofit museum. The rest have been converted to private residences or commercial properties (hotels, B&Bs, boutique shops). Some areas of the country face permanent evacuation due to repeated climate disasters (e.g., New Orleans, Galveston, Florida Keys). Museums in these areas struggle to document their dying communities while deciding whether and where to relocate.

Other museums have been unable to face the mounting financial challenges of decreased support from the government, philanthropy and their own endowments and have downsized, merged or closed as a result. On the other hand, these closings have concentrated the remaining government and private funding on the strongest, most economically viable organizations.


[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

Federal funding for museums has almost entirely dried up, as the effects of the economic collapse of 2009 endure. City and state funding have been reduced as well, as the tax base shrinks and local governments divert spending to health, security, transportation and ensuring the food supply. The value of museum endowments has plummeted, and support from individual donors and foundations is much smaller, as well. Museums rely much more heavily on earned income, which affects everything from their choice of exhibitions and the quid pro quo they offer sponsors to the space devoted to commercial activity (stores, cafes, event rentals). This in turn has fueled congressional efforts to raise the bar for obtaining or keeping federal tax-exempt status.


[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

Museums depend on a seamless network of wireless communications. They automatically download interpretive content onto visitors’ cell phones or PDAs, monitor which galleries and objects a visitor spends the most time with and suggest objects or gift shop items based on that data. They also monitor visitors’ biometric chips to identify whether elderly or ill visitors need first aid. This has made museums terribly vulnerable to griefing—cybervandals adding or corrupting information provided by the museum over the web or through wireless devices. Due to decreased visitation, many museums are trying to establish or expand their virtual presence on the web, but this is hampered by the increasing amount of cybervandalism and decreasing public confidence in web-based content.

Comments and additions: Given the planetary situation museums now have 20 times the number of on-line visitors. Museums provide direct access to their digitized collections as well as a wide variety of interpretative content. Museums have become the knowledge corporations of the twenty-first century surpassing the primitive media corporations of past years. Museums provide on-line mediated fora in which curators discuss and respond to issues by providing references, resources, and data. The number of on-line museum staff and volunteers has grown exponentially. Museums now provide access to a wide variety of experts in the sciences and humanities. Centers like the Smithsonian are valued national resources that provide main stream as well as rare and highly valued centers of expertise. Once considered the nation's attic, the Smithsonian is now considered to be the nation's center of on-line publically accessibe, free and trusted knowledge. Because of its reputation, the public still visits the aging Smithsonian buildings where they can pretend to be in the 20th century and automatically download interpretive content onto cell phones or archaic PDAs. Smithsonian staff still monitor which galleries and objects a visitor spends the most time with and suggest objects or gift shop items based on that data.

While griefing has been a continual problem, museums and the public have adapted by re-creating their galleries in virtual worlds such as [Second Life][1], and spawning a multitude of “community” museums. These smaller institutions apply for branch status (as do local libraries) of various larger institutions. In the case of the Smithsonian, for example, a “local curator” is funded to go to the Smithsonian, create a photo journal essay of their perspective on the visit, and the Smithsonian awards them several artifacts from their collection for “safe keeping” at the local level. While these artifacts are typically not valuable, they are deemed relevant to that locality. This new model of dispersing the collection but also remaining relevant has helped many larger institutions to reinforce their identity and reduce their carrying capacity.

Virtual worlds such as Second Life on the other hand, allowed the institutions to showcase and provide context to works that previously was not possible in the traditional museum visit model – this is done through audio overlays, movies, and linked text panels. The curated virtual visit also became popular by 2012, when enough institutions had created online galleries. While Second Life has its own share of issues with griefing and vandalism, museums have been able to reach a more diverse audience as a result. In addition, by developing a standard for [Creative Commons][2] Galleries in all large spaces (virtually and in reality), they have fostered a sharing of their expertise, collections, and identity (by default) with a larger audience.


[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

Museum staffs are stretched thin—particularly due to a shortage of volunteer leadership, as many baby boomers have put off retirement and taken second jobs to shore up failing finances. In addition, the government take-over of many museums has resulted in many passionate and talented staff positions being eliminated.

However, we are beginning to see a boom in volunteerism among young people who are unable, post-graduation, to find full-time employment and are looking for meaningful ways to contribute to society and build their resumes. They are not only assisting with the care of artifacts and collections, they act as an on-the-street curating team. Bringing back images, artifacts and stories from the present.

At the same time, many museum leadership positions go unfilled, as directors from the boomer generation retire but hiring freezes due to budget deficits remain in place. More museums have instituted “work from home” policies to reduce commuting and make more use of part-time or contract staff. Many museums are no longer able to offer the basic benefits that made nonprofit job salaries acceptable, as health insurance becomes expensive, or unobtainable, due to the ReDS epidemic.


[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

Rolling blackouts and brownouts, both scheduled and accidental, make museums more dependent on power they themselves generate through alternate technologies (solar, wind, geothermal). Government energy policy mandates that a portion of this privately generated energy be fed back into the grid to support essential services like hospitals and emergency response. Many museums are open to the public only on restricted or irregular schedules. They also face challenges in providing stable climate control for exhibits, storage spaces and reliable electronic security. Museums are better off, on the whole, than many other businesses, as they have taken the lead in the last decade in adopting green design and sustainable practices.


Christo's Homage to Smithson

In addition, in 2010, many museums began an efficiency overhaul of their collections, and re-evaluated their floor plans of their permanent collections based on energy usage. The start of the smaller, distributed model of museums also offset some of the large building needs as those structures became unfeasible to remain open as long as they traditionally had been, or space had to be given over to refugee groups. Starting in 2009, all traveling exhibits were required to incorporate a carbon footprint reduction into their plans. This spurred a national adoption of energy reduction standards in museums, which was approved by AAM in 2011. It went to ICOM in 2012, and was adopted and approved.

In 2009, the [Land Art Movement][3] began a successful campaign of creating site-specific artworks at museums that had to meet one of the following requirements:

- produce additional energy to feed the museum
- reduce energy of the building they were on or in

At first these works were guerilla in nature. However, their popularity spread very quickly with Christo's green roof homage to Robert Smithson in San Francisco in 2013. As Smithson himself once said, "One seizes the spiral, and the spiral becomes a seizure."

Collections CareEdit

[Click on header to access this section and enter your content]

Power and staff shortages challenge the ability of museums to provide secure, stable, climate-controlled storage for collections. Many museums have collaborated to create joint storage facilities, some underground (including in former mines) to reduce HVAC costs and improve security. The Richard Branson Virgin Atlantic Museum has taken this to the extreme, housing its collections in a self-contained, orbiting space station.

Biological collections have exploded in value as medical and agricultural research companies mine genomic data for solutions to epidemic disease and crop failure. Consequentially, taxonomic and tissue collections have become targets for theft, greatly increasing their need for physical and data security. Some museums supplement their failing incomes by selling exclusive access to these collections to commercial firms. This has become a hotly debated issue regarding ethical standards of conduct.

The large number of museum closures has created numerous orphaned collections, and the field struggles to sort through what should stay in the public domain and what will disappear into the private realm (or get tossed in the trash). Museums have greatly ramped up their efforts to digitize collections, hoping at least to document the collections they cannot physically keep. Some archives, after creating electronic copies, are auctioning off original documents, both to build their endowments to support basic operations and because they cannot provide adequate security in the face of escalating theft. This has created enormous tension between the economics savings of going digital, and the unique strength of museums as purveyors of authentic experience and guardians of the real.

For 20 years, the museum community has been struggling with effective and "permanent" digital archiving. This is fast becoming the only way to catalog and access many objects lost to disasters or lack of funding. Finding an appropriate solution in an era where energy is limited has become an enormous hurdle. The creation of distributed repositories and shared databases ensures that for the time being, if one institution fails, there will be another with a mirror collection.

Comments and additions:

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) has a geothermal powered generator that provides power for the entire Smithsonian through an innovative, Native built network that draws upon green energy sources. Long considered one of the most interesting efforts in collections management, the Cultural Resources Center of the NMAI provides on-line access to its collections to classrooms across the planet so that people everywhere can draw upon Native traditions and expertise in using natural, locally obtained materials to protect, feed, and create much needed tools for today's challenges. NMAI has consortia of staff and Native peoples available for consultation, advice, and discussion. These generate renewed enthusiasm and belief in the importance of people working together and valuing the contributions and insights of Indigenous knowledge as well as increasing understanding of the importance of museum collections and how they can provide very practical solutions and ideas for clothing, tools, weapons, as well as advice on the importance of communities and the value of working closely with neighbors. Because of the reliability, innovations, and creativity generated by these communications, the United States government has increased its support for the Smithsonian's collections and offered access to its resources to researchers across the world.

While some museums supplement their failing incomes by selling exclusive access to biological collections to commercial firms, others have generated significant funding from foundations that realize museum research provides a critical, independent, highly trusted resource. A world wide museum consortium now provides access to amalgamated data and resources using semantic Web technologies and offers resources that enable the world to save populations of migrating species and apply environmental data to highlight and define areas of the world that must be protected through international treaties. This project has received millions of dollars in funding through the United Nations and has ensured that funding is available to house, digitize, and support critical natural history collections in ways that were undreamed of in the twentieth century.

Many museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian offer completely digitized collections along with curatorial staff and Native academics and traditional elders to provide valuable insight and context. Other museums still need to convince local governments and supporters of the urgency to digitize collections, so that these valuable resources will be made available as part of the data bank of the planet to draw upon for solutions to the problems we now face. Retired in Shady Sid 22:27, 22 October 2008 (UTC)Retired in Shady Sid

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.