3D printers allow museums to produce exact replicas of fragile items

Vive la (technological) revolution

Geraldine Kendall, Issue 113/06, p17, 01.06.2013
Advances in technology will enable museums to customise experiences for individual visitors
The art of forecasting the future has come a long way since the days of tea leaves and crystal balls.

Now very much a science in itself, futurology featured in several sessions at last month’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference in Baltimore, while the Museum Next conference in Amsterdam explored upcoming digital innovations.

Tomorrow’s World will be a key theme at the Museums Association (MA) conference in November. Publication of the MA’s Museums 2020 vision, which will forecast the kind of impact that museums could have on people’s lives over the coming decade, is also imminent.

In essence, futurologists draw on past and current evidence to not only predict emerging trends but to suggest alternative versions of the future. Such predictions are often categorised according to a “cone of plausibility”, with the most likely future at the centre of the cone and the most implausible scenarios at the outer limits.

And the science is not purely passive; many futurologists believe it is necessary to “envision, design and invent preferred futures”, according to Iain Watson, head of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, who is coordinating the Tomorrow’s World theme. He says the key concept to watch out for is a “disruptive event” – an innovation or activity after which some element of people’s lives is never the same.

But how do these theories translate to the museum sector? Across the Atlantic, the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums recently published its yearly report into emerging museum developments. Trendswatch 2013 identifies six trends likely to have a significant impact on the museum sector over the coming years (see below).

While some are more specific to the US, the report offers a useful insight into the possibilities that lie ahead, particularly in terms of technology, where developments that once seemed like science fiction are rapidly becoming a reality.

Personalised information

According to Watson, the trend most relevant to the UK sector is “when stuff talks back”– the development of context-aware, personalised networks of digital information that can be triggered by smartphones and other mobile devices.

In the example given by the AAM report, this kind of interactive network, which has been termed the “internet of things”, would tell a passing visitor not just where a museum is, but where in the museum they might find a painting they would like (based on their previous tastes) and even whether a reproduction is on sale in the shop.

That in turn raises the question of how far museums should go in customising such experiences to individual visitors – and what might be lost in doing so.

Such “machine-to-machine” (or M2M) communication also has the potential to revolutionise collections care, according to the AAM report. Sensors that can track location, environmental changes and the condition of objects are becoming ever more affordable, while M2M biometric monitors that verify the identity of staff could also be used to improve security.

Another technological development that might turn into a so-called disruptive event is 3D printing. The Trendswatch 2013 report argues that it could potentially have a more profound impact on everyday life than the internet.

Valuable tool

Although it raises issues around intellectual property, 3D printing is likely to be a valuable tool for museums. Institutions in the US are already using the technology – the Smithsonian Institute recently printed a museum-quality bronze replica of Thomas Jefferson for a temporary exhibition, while the real statue remained on permanent display elsewhere.

The AAM’s Expo featured a demonstration of 3D scanning and printing, showing how the technology will enable models of fragile material to be digitally manufactured in-house for display. On the research side, digitally printed replicas may be scaled up in size to be examined more easily.

But futurology is not just about technology, says Watson. Other vital issues to consider in the UK include changing demographics, particularly an older and more diverse population, an adaptable workforce that represents all sections of society, and funding models that operate not just in the short term but over the next 20 to 50 years.

The Center for the Future of Museums is already at work on its Trendswatch report for 2014.

The organisation’s founding director, Elizabeth Merritt, says one trend that might make the grade is “big data” – the capacity to collect and analyse huge data sets on an unprecedented scale.

In museums, it has the potential to track not only minute visitor trends but to transform how collections are researched and aggregated worldwide.

It’s early days yet, says Merritt – but the future is never too far off.

  • The Tomorrow’s World theme at this year’s Museums Association Conference, which takes place in Liverpool on 11-12 November, will explore future trends for museums

Trendswatch 2013
  • The changing shape of giving: philanthropic trends for the future of museums
  • 3D printing: digital fabrication unleashes creativity
  • The great unbundling: will museums and formal education converge?
  • When stuff talks back: the rise of networked objects and attentive spaces
  • Disconnecting to reconnect: can people unplug from a hyperconnected world?
  • The urban renaissance: what does it mean for museums?