The permeable museum

Sharon Heal, 17.05.2016
How will the museum of the future look?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of museums and how we connect to the world around us. And recently I was asked to write a provocation for a London College of Communication exhibition and conference looking at possible, probable and preferable futures up to 2025.

It all seemed a bit far-fetched when I originally wrote it – now it seems worryingly close to home:

“2025 sees the long-awaited opening of the Trump Museum on the Mall in Washington.

“The $40bn museum was opened by Kim Kardashian, the current US ambassador to the United Nations, who is herself immortalised in the institution’s Plastic Surgery Hall of Fame.

“Other attractions on the site include McDonald’s World with its Supersize Galleries and Ronald McDonald education centre, and the Shell Centre for Environmental Research.

“The new museum replaces the previous cultural inhabitants of the Mall after the Smithsonian’s endowment was wiped out in the 2016 Chinese stock market crash and the Trump/Palin administration refused a bail-out.

“At the time Trump said that he wouldn’t spend hard earned US tax dollars on museums run by a 'whingeing, liberal, lefty-elite'.”

Reality or fantasy? Vanity Fair recently speculated on what the Donald Trump Presidential Library and Museum might contain.

A key question for those who work in and with museums is can or should museums attempt to deal with contemporary issues? And can museums help us resolve some of the contradictory messages that currently abound?

A snapshot of the beginning of 2016 illustrates the challenges that society will face over the coming decades: climate change; the mass displacement of people; political instability; an economic crunch; and a demographic time bomb.

The news in Europe has been dominated by the refugee crisis, with harrowing images on every news channel of people desperately seeking a safe haven.

The inconsistency between free movement for Europeans and stringent border controls for non-Europeans has been sharply exposed.

Globalisation has shrunk the planet but there is also the spectre of devolution, separatism and nationalism. Hyper-connectivity brings with it hyper-surveillance and a world where cyberbullying is a worse problem among teenagers than drug abuse. We are told that smart cities and smart villages are the future and yet we know that digital exclusion and segregation exist on a mass scale.

So can museums help us make sense of these turbulent times and conflicting messages? Or should they leave that to other organisations that are more adaptable, connected and fleet of foot?

Museums could adhere to the status quo, but if they are to be relevant to Millennials (Miley Cyrus) and Generation Z (Brooklyn Beckham) and if they are to weather stormy economic seas, they will have to do more than the preservation-education-interpretation day-job.

They will have to tackle the issues that these groups feel passionate about, using platforms that these groups are native on, and in language that resonates.

The 2025 museum should look very different to its turn-of-the-century predecessor. Its walls will be permeable to objects, people and ideas, and its vision will be about the future and not the past.

This week I will see what the students’ response to my blog/provocation is. You might think we can write off the Trump presidency by saying it could never happen here. But then you only have to look as far as the pasty-scoffing blonde-bombshell to realise it just might. Bojo Museum of Gaffes anyone?