13 Jun 2016

Museums: portals to the past, windows to the future

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 13 June 2016

From pop-up exhibits to helping people get tattoos of artworks, museums are making a big effort to keep up with the digital age, but US museum guru and futurist Elizabeth Merritt tells Kathryn Ryan that we shouldn't get too obsessed with technology.

Elizabeth Merritt is founding director of the Centre for the Future of Museums and the American Alliance of Museums' Vice President of Strategic Foresight.

Interview highlights

Elizabeth Merritt: Museums still have audiences that are predominantly white, wealthy and older, so we have a lot of work to do to diversify our audiences to ensure we remain relevant.

There’s been some very interesting research done in the US… that finds that people that are devoted museum-goers, most of them have a very clear memory of their youth, sometime between the ages of 7 and 9 years old, of having a transformative museum experience, being bowled over by a dinosaur or being immersed in a historic house or seeing a beautiful painting.

The ‘cabinets of curiosity’ in the 19th century were in some ways the progenitors of the modern museum where things are displayed in a temple-like atmosphere with glass cases and labels… There’s been much more of a shift in the last 100 years towards the more democratic community based models of museum saying ‘What are the needs of the community? How can we help them? If this is a working community what do people need to help educate them for better jobs? What are things they want to know about to become better citizens?’ This kind of shift to museums being service-oriented rather than necessarily the purveyors of high culture and teaching what people ought to know is one of the things that are helping them win new audiences.

Traditionally, the people who have run museums and curated museums come out of academia and the tradition that they were promoted in and the tradition that values their work is an academic tradition of behaving and talking a certain way in synch with your peers and being recognised by your peers.

There’s this false dichotomy we’ve created between something being fun and exciting and intriguing and interesting and things that are true and important and people ought to know. I think there’s no reason not to merge those two things and the best museums do that. They create educational experiences that are fun and addictive and intriguing that people really enjoy and they become popular by word of mouth.