Forecasting the Future of Museums

What hand will Fate deal your museum?

WMA was pleased to have AAM's Center for the Future of Museums Director Elizabeth Merritt lead two sessions on futurecasting. Now, even though tarot cards were involved in the second session (hey, it was the last time slot of the entire conference--we needed a hook for the audience!), Elizabeth was quick to point out that forecasting the future is not fortune telling or predicting the future. Instead, forecasting is a process of looking at current trends and getting a sense of where they are headed so that you can envision several possible future scenarios--and then shape your museum's course to try to reach the scenario that looks the most promising and to avoid the most dystopic scenarios.

This is what makes futurecasting a valuable planning tool--it is a strategic way of looking at the unknown.

The first session, co-moderated by the California Association of Museums Director Celeste DeWald, focused specifically on California as a cast study for the futurecasting process and involved group activities to help audience members get a better sense of how to identify current trends.

Maybe that sounds easy, but it's trickier than one might think! Identifying trends does not mean making predictions or guesses about the future--it means scanning the present and really being aware of recurring behaviors, tools, activities, etc. and looking for patterns. Elizabeth describes trends as follows: "Trends are gradual, incremental changes that can be monitored, measured and extrapolated into the future to give us our most ‘Plausible Future.’"

In the second session, three outside experts (read: non-museum people--gasp!)* described the trends that they see happening in their fields of technology, staffing and organizational sustainability. Using these trends along with a few "black swan" events also proposed by the panelists, the audience was tasked with imagining scenarios for museums set in a world defined by these trends and events.

The black swan event is the death of the nonprofit museum. How alarming! I wonder what the trends are?

This is where the tarot deck came into play. Before the session, Elizabeth and I transformed 16 cards from a tarot deck into our futurecasting hands, consisting of some combination of trends and disruptive events. In four groups of five, the audience examined their hands and put on their storytelling hats to envision how museums would survive in these worlds--and with events like museums all losing their nonprofit status, survival was definitely a struggle in some of the scenarios!

But the point is, you don't need a crystal ball, medium or even a deck of doctored tarot cards to look into the future. You can start looking around your own environment right now and start scanning for trends and developing strategies to embrace, respond to or prepare for meeting the change that those trends may bring.

* Many thanks to Anna Richter of NTEN, Justin Yuen of FMYI and Meg Busse of for participating!




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Just want to see if you are a robot.