Thursday, March 2, 2017

Some Museum Trends

Museums create, follow, and sometimes are swallowed up by trends. Like trends in general, museum trends reflect directions in which movement or change is occurring. Trends might be related to changing demographics, the popularity of particular experiences with visitors, or changes on the horizon requiring preparation.

Often trends are associated with external factors over which museums have little control but which they do need to plan for like changes in funding sources, changing housing patterns, or birthrates. Sometimes focus on a social issue like social media can highlight how museums might be helpful to children, families and the community and to themselves. Still other trends emerge from excitement about something new one museum has tried, like rat basketball, which ripples from one museum to another.

There are past, current, and future trends; trends that are strategic, financial, operational, and programmatic. Trends come from and affect different types of museums–art museums, science centers, history museums, or children’s museums–differently. One example is a set of seven trends relevant to science centers world-wide that a group of science center leaders and researchers first explored at ASTC 2015 and then shared in an article in the Informal Learning Review (No. 136, Jan/Feb 2016)We also learn about trends from research and analysis that identify shifts that are occurring that might affect visitation.

Trends with long-term trajectories affecting museums are explored annually in TrendsWatch published by AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. The just released forecasting report, 2017 TrendsWatch, explores how each trend plays out, implications for society and museums, and how museums are and might respond to them.

Whether followed diligently or not, trends inform and guide us. Trends help us shape a future and the museum we want. Studying them is helpful in planning and is often a preliminary step for strategic planning, preparation for a major capital project, or taking corrective action. Many museums attend to trends for inspiration, staying current, and being more attractive to visitors and supporters.

I look at and think about trends to push on my assumptions, organize information, share practices with others, and think about the future. I've gathered 11 trends I have been noticing. I hear colleagues talking about them and they are showing up in conference sessions, articles, studies, reports, and blogs. While these trends may not be completely new, shifts are occurring, perhaps spreading to more museums, assuming greater influence, and evolving. Several relate to larger trends identified in TrendsWatch.  

Museums can reflect on these trends and how they might play out in the context of their audience, museum, and community. Of course every trend is not necessarily a good fit for every museum but there are often ways to approach or incorporate a trend to increase its relevance. In what ways are these trends playing out in your museum?

1.     Extending the Museum’s Age Range. Over the past several years, science centers, natural history, art and history museums have been reaching down to serve a younger audience, while children’s museums have been reaching up. Some of this may be encouraged by reports like IMLS Early Learning  that highlight the value of early experiences and the role museums and libraries can play. A growing focus on family learning encourages keeping families–often with children of several ages–together. Finally, extending the age range either way, promises attendance growth. Museums reaching out to new audience groups will want to be prepared for planned and unplanned shifts and reactions. Museum Notes: Managing Multiple Museum Audiences 

2.     Awareness of Informal Learning. While museums have long identified themselves as places of informal learning, they are increasingly intentional about their roles and opportunities. In free-choice or informal settings, learning is social, learner-motivated, voluntary, tool and object-based, and contextual. Occupying an important niche in their local learning ecosystems, museums have distinct opportunities to accommodate non-traditional learners, develop talents, model active learning for local schools, and contribute to educational reform. As more studies highlight the benefits of informal learning and their settings, museums are increasingly able to use these qualities in planning learning experiences and encouraging learners to extend their learning over time. Museum Notes: The Dance: Informal and Formal Learning

3.     Collaborative Experiences. Museums are finding that collaboration works at many scales: with members of the community, with other organizations, internally among staff, and among visitors in exhibits and programs. A 21st century skill valued for both individuals and groups, collaboration engages different perspectives, amplifies new voices, shares expertise, and extends resources. Collaborative efforts allow a museum to accomplish goals for its learners, itself, and its community that it could not otherwise accomplish from enriched experiences to being more inclusive and increasing impact. Any museum that has been engaged in collaborative efforts will know that along with the benefits come challenges of time, trust, and managing change. From the Field: Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative

4.     The Power of Place. Place is more than physical setting, an address, geography, weather, or an historical marker. It is something we experience directly, physically, and intensely through our senses, experiences, and emotions. As daily life becomes more global, museums are recognizing that being local is increasingly valued. Experiences grounded in place connect with what an audience finds distinctive and meaningful; builds on local knowledge; and deepens a sense of connection and identity. As a museum looks for ways to distinguish itself, tell its story in new ways, and deepen its roots in the community, it is likely to find some direction from the power of place. From the Field: Places of Invention:  Museum Notes: Place Matters 
5.     Authentic Materials. Real-world stuff–tools, utensils, natural materials, building materials, fabric, biofacts, and everyday objects is full of information about the world, how it works, and how it is likely to work. Materials motivate, hold stories, express possibilities, and deepen our understanding of concepts. Museums recognize that in a world of increasingly virtual experiences and objects that may not actually be made of what they appear to be, direct experiences with authentic materials are critical for our understanding of materiality and how our body gathers information and how it understands. Using authentic materials can be staff intensive and requires adequate, convenient storage.  Museum Notes: Managing Materials for Making and Tinkering   

6.     Nice + Necessary. Increasingly, museums realize they must be outstanding at being both nice + necessary. They must be inviting and attractive and they must matter. A museum is nice, a pleasant place to spend time, to bring friends from out of town, or to celebrate. A museum is necessary in strengthening community, contributing to a more robust regional infrastructure around well-being, or playing a critical role in early literacy. Like 2 sides of a coin, nice + necessary need one another. Nice provides credibility and brand recognition for being necessary which in turn confers credibility and confidence about the museum's long-term value. Museum Notes: Unpacking Nice + Necessary

7.     Visitor Engagement. More museums are finding more ways to plan and work with as well as for their audiences. They are inviting citizen insights into their community into the museum, crowdsourcing ideas; and co-curating projects with visitors. Visitors help research and prototype exhibits. Besides enriching museum experiences and offerings, visitor input adds new voices, expands perspectives, increases relevance, shares authority, and broadens ownership of the museum. Many museums are experimenting with this bottom up approach, finding ways to increase engagement, personalize interactions, and stay in touch. To manage well and respect visitor input, museums need clear goals for what the engagement is intended to accomplish and how input will be used. From the Field: What Is Engagement, and When Is It Meaningful?

8.     From STEM to STEAM. A concern about STEM literacy especially for girls, underrepresented groups, and the workforce pipeline has been bubbling for years. A shift from STEM to STEAM, integrating the arts–music, visual arts, language, sculpture, dance–into STEM learning experiences addresses some of these concerns by increasing entry points and motivation for exploring STEM concepts. At the same time it welcomes creativity in science, imagining what’s possible, and application of design skills. Just as science centers and museums are adding the arts to STEM learning, art museums are adding science to arts exploration. From the Field: Artlab+Q?rius Art-Science Workshop Series Evaluation2015 

9.     Maker Spaces and the Maker Movement. Making brings puttering and crafting in from the garage, basement, shed, or knitting circle. It’s a DIY, from scratch, messing around mindset that amps up the self-directed learning, level of interactivity, and social engagement we are now seeing in museums, libraries, and community centers. Experiences in maker spaces, facilitated by prepared staff, are able to serve a wider range of ages and visitors, from young children through adults while providing access to a range of materials and tools. Maker spaces draw on high-and low technologies and engage makers in a variety of processes including material exploration, designing, and building. As the larger "maker movement," grows to more settings, how will museums distinguish their maker spaces? From the Field: Learning to Make in the Museum   

10.  Technology Everywhere. There isn't an area of the museum where new technology is not well established: mobile giving, social media, mobile apps, augmented reality, depth sensors...and more. TrendsWatch over the last 4 years has more or less documented this. Engaging new technologies are dramatically changing the museum’s relationship with members, donors, and the community. With new technology, visitor and gallery experiences increase learners' access to content, combine physical with digital experiences, and help in visualizing complex ideas and relationships. Museums of all sizes are struggling with technology adoption, needing to develop a museum-wide digital strategy, manage the demands placed on resources, and keep pace with technical infrastructure. From the Field: NMC Horizon Report 

11.  Places of Research and Evaluation. Research and evaluation activity has been growing across the museum field. Not so long ago, few museums conducted more than an occasional program evaluation or summative evaluation as required by a funder; a museum rarely conducted research. As a maturing field expected to demonstrate its value, museums have been growing internal and field-wide capacity. Field-wide research agendas have guided studies and supported research networks and research exchanges. Educators, evaluators, developers, designers, and researchers at museums, small and large, are developing their own research agendas, framing questions, and connecting theory and practice that is meaningful in their museums. Most likely, some of the results of this research will generate coming trends.  From the Field: Developing a Research Agenda Aimed at Understanding the Teaching and Learning of Science at a Natural History Museum

What trends would you add to this list? How do you use trends in your museum? What's helpful in using them?

Photo credit: Nuernberg Installation by Markus Linnenbrink


  1. If I were to add #12, it would be amenities: better cafes and food/drink options; attention to visitor comforts, like comfortable seating for all ages, well-equipped family restrooms, easy access (admissions, parking lots, stroller guidelines). Even expanded wi-fi, as debated as that might be. In addition to learning, aesthetics, and community relationships, museums want visitors to have comfortable, satisfying experiences.

  2. Thank you, Mary, that's a great addition. Museums have been thinking about and adding more amenities so time at the museum is easy, comfortable, convenient. A responsive, amiable environment reduces crankiness, extends visits, and creates better memories.

  3. This is all fine in the world of visitor engagement, education and exhibits but nothing was noted on trends in Collections Management and Curatorial. Two very important areas in museology and should not be ignored.

  4. You are right, Evelyn. Thank you for pointing that out; I have overlooked those important areas. I wish I were familiar enough with them to have a feel for relevant trends. Are there trends you are observing in Collections Management and Curatorial you feel like sharing?

  5. We're also seeing #7 (visitor engagement) have greater importance in terms of getting local communities and potential visitors involved in the museum development process. One item to add to this is the use of analytics for the ongoing measurement and evaluation of visitor feedback. And of course, collections management continues to play a critical role in the development of museum exhibits.

  6. Anne, thank you for these additions. I think analytics crosses museums and areas and plays an increasingly larger role in how museums plan and how they understand their accomplishments.