2009 Museum Futures

What is the museum of the future? What shape will museums take in 10 years, in 20 years, in 40 years? If you are in graduate school right now then this represents the time span of your active professional career when you will likely lay the groundwork for the next generation of museums. In 2050 what will The Cooper-Hewitt look like? The American Museum of Natural History? The Tenement Museum? How can the museum of the future take into account the ever-increasing speed of social, geographic and technological transformation that we are witnessing?  And how can the range of design professionals specializing in museums help with the necessary transformations that these institutions must undergo. What new strategies and techniques will they employ?  This semester we are exploring these questions and develop speculative proposals to answer them.

Throughout human history museums have had to adjust in form, structure and technique relative to a changes in societal structures and needs. The most ancient museums were vast repositories of knowledge. Designed for eternity, these were monumental arcs for the safe keeping of memories. Later museums became centers of power, focused expressions of the sovereign’s dominion over the world and his subjects. In the modern era museums became therapeutic mechanisms for the socializing of newly democratized masses. Later they became alternative centers of education through highly evolved pedagogical principals and were meant to deliver the ‘experience of learning’.  While some museums continued along this track, at the peak of late-capitalism many museums became destination attractions, competing to deliver rich experiences on the expectations of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumer audience. While not all museums have followed the same path and there is incredible variety museum generally have responded to trends and external influences as society on the whole undergoes continuous transformation at accelerated rates.

In this new century we are moving into new territory with new challenges as our world continues to shrink through physical, social and communicative networks where meaning is constructed at the moment of interaction and discarded with every new user and every new interaction. We currently live in an environment rich with free-choice learning experiences, a proliferation of user-generated content and participatory narrative where it is the end user that gives shape to the world around her as she constructs her identity in these deeply personal and repetitive acts of meaning-making. How should museums respond to this?

Six museums in New York City agreed to be research sites for the Museum Design Lab – Museum Futures seminar. Six interdisciplinary teams composed of students in the degree programs of Interior Design, Lighting Design, Architecture, and Decorative Arts & Design worked with each of the six museums. Student teams visited their museum, interviewed museum staff, posted their research and discussed issues and opportunities that are unique to each institution with the aim of developing a speculative proposal for the museum’s future. The six museums were chosen for their diversity and range of mission, audience and methods of engaging visitors. Two are scientific museums, two are cultural identity and history museums, two are art and design museums. Two of the museums are owned and managed by the Smithsonian. Four are collecting museums with a strong emphasis on research and scholarship. One is a historical site. The Museum Design Lab is grateful to these institutions and their staff for their participation.

American Museum of Natural History
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

National Museum of the American Indian

New York Hall of Science

Museum of Modern Art