I contributed last week to an event in London which was designed to imagine how the notion of the museum might change. The current model, which is about 150 years old, basically consists of a building with some stuff in it, arranged according to some organising principle. It is changing already in the face of challenges from technology and shifting ideas about authority and hierarchy.

The event was organised by Nicola Jennings of City University and Kathleen Soriano of Compton Verney Museum, and it was funded by LCACE. Ahead of time, by way of stimulus, Declan McGonagle contributed a paper on the museum as a “commons“, while Klaus Muller wrote about the notion of how the digitally networked world might change power relationships between museums and their users. (These are [update] now online here; scroll down.)

My trends presentation included some indicative scenarios for museums, some further out than others. They included:

  • The forum: “A local resource and meeting space, enabling discovery, shared experience, relearning of skills, and disputes about meaning – and a place for such disputes to be addressed.”
  • The rich club: “The corporate museum, with high profile collections and exhibitions. In a world where it seems likely that knowledge will be more contested, this upholds traditional notions of the canon. But why open them up to the public?”
  • Splinter groups: “Museums created through tightly engaged communities of interest move beyond their current ‘oddball’ status. In a more digital world support groups and user groups would start to emerge – in which amateur experts engage with professionals.”
  • The cut up: “The remix museum, which takes the notion of the ‘extended’ workplace (in space and time) to its logical conclusion, and extends it to remixed meanings, active reinterpretations, and open knowledge. Each time you entered you’d see a different museum.”
  • The imaginarium: “New challenges require new discourses. The imaginarium is a transformer, a home of social and interpretative innovation – drawing on diverse workforce and users, bringing history into the present as a source both of meaning and skills.”

Ideas of ownership, and the uses of technology, play out in different places in different ways. My occasional colleague Wendy Schultz suggested in an email (in which she also improved some of the scenarios) that these could be stretched further by asking how the museum looked from differing points of view – the deep ecological point of view, for example, or the feminist point of view. Come to that, what would a biodegradable museum look like?

Some thoughts on listening to the discussion during the day. The first is that there are significant vested interests in the museums sector for whom the collection is their main source of power, prestige, and patronage. (As someone said in one of the breakout groups, the mainstream response to threats of budget cuts is, pace Blazing Saddles, “One false move and the public engagement work gets it in the head”.) So if there is innovation, it is likely to be around the edges.

The second is that the notion of the public is absolutely central – what is the public which is being served, and why. While this seems obvious, it raises in its wake some complex questions about power and meaning. I liked Alec Coles’ account of the Tyne and Wear Museums mission statement, “to help people determine their place in the world and define their identities, so enhancing their self-respect and their respect for others.” (The whole thing has a refreshingly radical intent.)

The third is that although it is easy to dismiss, or at least minimise, the importance of the collection, the notion of ‘material culture’ is certain to remain at the heart of the idea of the museum, no matter how much it changes. There was an interesting story told about the Lindisfarne Gospels, currently in the British Library, which are the subject of an intermittent campaign to secure their return to the north-east. The BL has invested heavily in the development of a digital version of the Gospels with sophisticated functionality which enables users anywhere to turn the pages virtually, but the digital experience is different emotionally from their sense of physical place.

Finally, the ‘organising principle’ is inherently (and always) ideological. This would still be the case even for the museum which invited users to reinterpret its material according to – say – open knowledge principles. (My colleague Rachel Kelnar, whose take on the event can be read here, says that when she visited the Richard Nixon Museum there was a notable gap on the subject of Watergate, although this seems to have changed since. But ideologies are shifting sands.)

As it happens, there’s a short film on at the Wellcome Collection at the moment which brings the notion of curation, of what curators do, into play. 26 Things, by Marion Coutts, takes 26 objects from Wellcome’s eclectic collection, and displays them on a screen. Every few seconds, the screen goes dark and the objects reappear, sometimes moving to new places (but so subtly that at first sight you barely notice). Having spent a day thinking about museums, the questions raised by the film about how we see objects, how we group (or re-group) them, why we choose to foreground some and relegate others, were in sharp focus.