The Future of Museums

Why Real Matters More Than Ever

in Museum Worlds
Author:
David Prince Director, Prince+Pearce, UK

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Daniel Laven Professor, Mid Sweden University, Sweden

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Originating from the Ancient Greek Mouseion early examples, such as the Institute for Philosophy in Alexandria (founded c. 280 BC), museums1 were temple-like buildings set apart for study, and often associated with libraries. Scholars arrived from all parts of the (mainly Mediterranean) world not simply to consult the material but to meet like-minded people. Museums were places of intellectual and social commerce in an age when the concept of a university was in its infancy. As such they were found in the commercial heart of their locations; their buildings were surrounded by taverns, cafes, public spaces, temples, and shops where the scholar could be refreshed after a day's study. Two thousand years later, town planners would define such places as being “cultural quarters.” There are an estimated 105,000 museums in over 200 countries which, collectively, cover every field of artistic, scientific, cultural, and historical endeavor (Statista 2022a). Museums of all types (national, not-for-profit, local authority, university) collectively make a significant contribution to the tourism, leisure, and educational infrastructures of their countries. As distinct from public libraries (themselves of great antiquity), most modern museums would align their statement of purpose with the definition recently approved by the International Council of Museums (ICOM 2022): “collecting, conserving, documenting, interpreting and displaying objects of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for study and public education and enjoyment.”

Purpose

Originating from the Ancient Greek Mouseion early examples, such as the Institute for Philosophy in Alexandria (founded c. 280 BC), museums1 were temple-like buildings set apart for study, and often associated with libraries. Scholars arrived from all parts of the (mainly Mediterranean) world not simply to consult the material but to meet like-minded people. Museums were places of intellectual and social commerce in an age when the concept of a university was in its infancy. As such they were found in the commercial heart of their locations; their buildings were surrounded by taverns, cafes, public spaces, temples, and shops where the scholar could be refreshed after a day's study. Two thousand years later, town planners would define such places as being “cultural quarters.” There are an estimated 105,000 museums in over 200 countries which, collectively, cover every field of artistic, scientific, cultural, and historical endeavor (Statista 2022a). Museums of all types (national, not-for-profit, local authority, university) collectively make a significant contribution to the tourism, leisure, and educational infrastructures of their countries. As distinct from public libraries (themselves of great antiquity), most modern museums would align their statement of purpose with the definition recently approved by the International Council of Museums (ICOM 2022): “collecting, conserving, documenting, interpreting and displaying objects of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for study and public education and enjoyment.”

For visitors, museums provide an entertaining, engaging, and enlightening (perhaps even a challenging) way to spend leisure time. For schools they serve as important educational resources where children can encounter objects from the past as well as from contemporary cultures. For public authorities they can be viewed as weather gauges of the cultural health and wellbeing of the communities they serve. For their managers they are a source of supporting income by way of entrance charges and commercial, primarily retail and catering, activities. For society at large they perform—in addition to their primary roles—the key functions of being trusted and respected authorities over a variety of issues such as climate change, slavery, war, and pandemics because they can bear down on the fundamental facts through an understanding of their objects, supported by historic narratives.

As institutions, museums are consistently regarded as being authoritative, unbiased, and trusted. The best museums are some of the world's leading academic powerhouses. A recent study by the US firm Wilkening Consulting, published as “Museums and Trust” (Wilkening 2021), confirmed that the public regards museums as being highly trustworthy, ranking second only to friends and family as sources of reliable information, and significantly higher than NGOs, news organizations, governments, businesses, and social media. For those who had visited a museum in the past two years (a quarter of the survey's respondents), the study found that museums were the number one trusted source of information. This high level of public trust is consistent for museums of all types, from art galleries to zoos. The top three reasons cited as contributing to this trust are that museums are (a) fact-based, (b) present real/authentic/original objects, and (c) are research-oriented (Wilkening 2021).

Threats

Why this matters is that in a fast-changing world museums are competing against two major phenomena, both of which are having have an effect on the understanding of truth and reality and hence the world as perceived: (a) the post-truth, MAGA, fake-news agenda on the one hand and (b) the way in which images and narratives are portrayed on the other.

The first, (a) fake news, is a complex mix of politically engineered polarization and instability, dissatisfaction, perceived disenfranchisement, misogyny, racism, and narcissism aimed at destabilizing political consensus and the way in which it is delivered. This is exemplified in the USA, where the events of 6 January 2021 at the Capitol have been the subject of an enquiry by the House Select Committee and have resulted in the indictment of a former President. But this is not an isolated case. Many countries are constantly fighting fake news stories, be they home-grown or foreign-inspired, in a world where international tension is now at a post-Cold War high fueled by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, tension with China (Corera 2022), and high and rising inflation globally (Trading Economics 2022). Fake news cases can, and must, be countered by debate, reason, sound argument, and the statement and restatement of facts. But competing against fake news is a hard job: entrenched views, no matter how outlandish, are difficult to shift. Museums can play their part, but they can't do it alone.

The second, (b) imaging, is perhaps more difficult for museums to address because it is supported by some of the world's most wealthy and influential companies. In some ways it mirrors fake news, because it is all to do with creating a false background, a false narrative, an illusion, against which action, real or imagined, occurs. In the film business this is exemplified by the use of green/blue screens and, latterly, huge LED 360o screens to backdrop the scene. Actors perform on, essentially, empty stages, their movements and facial expressions captured to be edited in later in a completely computer-generated environment.

These examples are significant because the visual illusions they create have now become sufficiently persuasive and mainstream for people to accept what they see on the screen. It is, of course, impossible to do otherwise. And this is likely to get even more interesting as further advances are made in CGI, VR, and AR technologies. All this is fine in the name of entertainment.

Challenges

But switch channels to CNN and its coverage of, say, the war in Ukraine and an entirely new narrative is presented. There is no need for green screens or advanced CGI. No need for a fictional MI6 agent with a license to kill, no place for fake news. The differences, however, between CNN and James Bond can be blurred. Footage can be manufactured or manipulated, and often is, by those intent on destabilizing messages and creating confusion or doubt through created content. While social media platforms (particularly Facebook/Instagram and TikTok) are the main culprits for onward transmission, state-controlled media, such as RT (Russia), CCTV (China) and sycophantic right-wing outlets such as Fox News (US) and GB News (UK), are also culpable.2 Such managed and manipulated misinformation is designed to disorientate and confuse viewers over fundamentally important issues such as the war in Ukraine, China's ongoing paranoia over COVID-19 and its expansion in the South China Sea (Associated Press 2022), as well as climate change. At its most blatant it was used to question the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election.

Hence, recognizing what's “true” and “real” is, for many people, becoming increasingly problematic. In a fully digitized world where media outlets are becoming controlled either by mega-rich individuals (Feiner 2022) or by nation-states using them to defend their own political positions, and while social media continues to test reality, Orwell's (1949) vision of the future relationship between the individual, the state, and information is now, sadly, of increasing relevance. But in a digitally savvy, app-based world it's not just Big Brother, it's big sister, big business, big friends, big influencers that are gaining traction. And many of these links originate either from external governments or internal nationalistic groups posing as bona fide sources.

How this has come about over the last 20 years or so is for others to pick over.3 But the outcome has been a maelstrom of highly politicized misinformation, mis-imaging, and partisan propaganda, some of which now threatens the very foundations of Western democracy. And amongst all this, museums carry on their essential business. Many words have been written about the ways in which museums can and should engage with their public, and often the phrases “new technology” and “innovation” are used. As published by Statista, the CGI firm RenderThat reported that the average cost of CGI for a mainstream film lasting an edited on-screen 100 minutes made in pre-pandemic USA was around $35 million, down from a peak of close to $80 million in 2010 due to improving technologies (Statista 2022b). But that's still $350,000 a minute just for CGI. And viewers now expect this level of non-reality as part of the experience. The popularity and hence money-making ability of fantasy films such as Spider Man, Jurassic World, Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow demonstrate the attractiveness of being, at least for a short time, in a non-real world.4

How can museums compete? The answer is they can't. And they shouldn't even try. Virtual museum and gallery tours, developed by some (primarily national-level) institutions, especially during the pandemic, were a response to a perceived need, as a few die-hard and Internet-savvy people were willing and able to log on. But these were the exception. The vast majority of the UNESCO-estimated 105,000 museums in the world lack the means, the expertise, and the support networks to even dream of a virtual presence, let alone at a level that can begin to compete with even the most basic Hollywood-underwritten CGI. And this is important, because the same people who visit museums will have almost certainly watched a number of CGI-based films along with the rest of the population.

Belief

So, why do so many people continue to visit museums? They are, after all, very popular places, from the smallest provincial or town collection to the super-nationals in London, Paris, Washington, DC, and Florence. While reasons vary from a genuine desire to enhance knowledge to being dragged along as part of a school group, what they offer—and which no other institution can offer—is direct, face-to-face contact with the real thing: a Fra Angelico fresco, a Neolithic arrowhead, a Nineteenth Dynasty mummy, a 300-million-year-old ammonite, crusader battle axe, a votes-for-women placard, a tiny piece of moonrock. And the effect can be transformative. The emotional impact of actually being within 20 feet of, say, the Mona Lisa far, far outweighs all the replicas, postcards, screen images, and VR representations (Coleman 2018).

This suggests that while museum communications could now include VR or CGI in some form because the public has come to expect it, and the fact that they may well assist interpretation, it implies that they should be deliberately low impact (and low cost) so that they do not overshadow or diminish the objects or themes they are interpreting. This approach also applies to heritage sites in the landscape, including those of an archaeological, ecological, or geological nature as well as intangible heritage. After all, the real thing is the real thing. As just one crossover between tangible and intangible heritage, an example is Elizabeth I's speech at the English port of Tilbury on the eve of the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada. Her speech has been portrayed many times since she wrote it on 9 August 1588 (British Library n.d.). But the fact that her handwritten notes are preserved in the British Library as a matter of public record—and can actually be read in all its passion—outweighs any interpretation by Oscar winners Glenda Jackson, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, and Bette Davis.

Trust

In an age when people view the world through their mobile phones, even while they are actually at places such as Stonehenge, the Louvre, or Machu Picchu, the need for grounded, well researched and authoritative, object-based interpretation is all the more acute. Museums remain trusted and respected authorities. They have achieved this status over many years and across many societies by using and interpreting objects to make past cultures and environments and current events relevant by way of coherent, well researched, balanced, honest, and consistent narratives. As these narratives and meanings have changed over time, museums have responded, and will continue so to do. Museums are well used to taking the latest scientific, cultural, and social trends in their stride as part of their academic underpinning and growth. Speaking in 2021, Max Hollein, CEO of the Met in New York, opined:

Bringing more and more objects to one place will become less relevant, versus how you translate the knowledge, understanding, and complexities of these objects to a wider audience. I do think the physical experience of the museum will continue to be powerful and strong. But museums will expand significantly in ways that are not just physical, but also digital and intellectual in regard to their engagement in various areas of the world. (Kazakina 2021)

If we accept these ideas, two key issues emerge: museums will continue to offer physical engagement with real objects, but also that the digital world will become more important than it is now. And, in our terms, the museum's digital world should be one of presenting verified information and the exchange of ideas rather than VR, CGI, and other manufactured experiences that attempt to compete with Hollywood-inspired media. There will no doubt be a growing demand put on museums for Internet-based interpretation for exhibitions and the like. But these must be factual, interpretive, and honest—as they always have been. In a world of exponentially growing fake news (much of which is deliberately malicious) fake images, and manufactured opinions, museums have an ethical responsibility to set out the facts based on evidence, no matter where that evidence leads. The best museums have always done this. It is even more important that they all do it now.

Notes

1

In this article, the word “museum” uses the very broad UNESCO/ICOM definition from 2007, which includes natural, archaeological, and ethnographic monuments and sites and historical monuments and sites of a museum nature that acquire, conserve, and communicate material evidence of people and their environment; institutions holding collections of and displaying live specimens of plants and animals, such as botanical and zoological gardens, aquaria and vivaria; science centers and planetaria; non-profit art exhibition galleries; nature reserves; conservation institutes and exhibition galleries permanently maintained by libraries and archives centers; and natural parks.

2

The interplay of the “medium” and the “message” and the effect of this interplay on the definition of what is “real” was first presented by Marshall McLuhan in his seminal works Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967).

3

Facebook was launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, and TikTok in 2021.

4

These five films turned over an estimated $2.4 billion against production costs at an average of 40 percent of turnover.

References

Contributor Notes

DAVID PRINCE is a director of UK consulting firm Prince+Pearce, was formerly a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences at University College London, and is now a special adviser to UNOPS, the United Nations Office for Project Services. He is a cultural project strategist with over forty years’ experience of working in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors on a range of protected and interpreted places.

DANIEL LAVEN is an associate professor of human geography at Mid Sweden University where he currently serves as the head of the Department of Economics, Geography, Law and Tourism. His work focuses on issues of heritage management and his research is conducted under the auspices of the university's European Tourism Research Institute (ETOUR).

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