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Leisure Media - Elizabeth Merritt


Elizabeth Merritt

Since 2015, the VP and founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums has been tracking the sector in an annual TrendsWatch publication. She tells Magali Robathan about this year’s biggest trends and how to capitalise on them

Merritt founded the Center for the Future of Museums in 2008 Photo: American Alliance of Museums
During the lockdowns, a video of Wellington the penguin watching the belugas got 93,000 views on YouTube Photo: Brenna Hernandez
Visitors put on virtual reality goggles to enter the Kremer Museum Photo: www.thekremercollection.com
The Philbrook Museum acquired ‘Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV’ by artist Kehunde Wiley who champions diversity Photo: Kehinde Wiley& Roberts Projects

As a futurist, how do you support museums?
I create little temporal anomalies that give museum people a glimpse into what the world might be like, decades hence. That sounds very sci-fi, but it’s a pretty good summary of what a futurist does.

What does your role involve on a day-to-day basis?
In day-to-day practice, this involves teaching, forecasting and research. I teach museum people the skills of foresight, starting with a basic awareness of the fact that decisions about long-term organisations, such as museums, need to be made in the context of envisioning long-term futures. What challenges will face their community in 10, 20, or 50 years? What changes will they need to navigate?

Realising that not every museum person has the time to become a futurist, I do some of the groundwork – identifying important trends, creating scenarios that describe worlds museums might inhabit in coming decades, and asking critical questions.

To fuel this work I unearth the information museums need to inform their foresight. That sometimes requires conducting research, whether that’s on public expectations of museums, or trends in museum practice.

What do you see as the most important trends highlighted in this year’s TrendsWatch?
Two of the trends this year illustrate the power museums have to help create a better world for all of us. The term ‘existential crisis’ has been overworked in the past few years, but I think it’s warranted when applied to the current levels of partisanship in the US. Some historians and political analysts fear for the future of our democracy, even as we approach the semiquincentennial (250 years).

Museums have a superpower that can help us tackle this wicked problem: they are one of the most trusted sources of information in America (ranked second only to friends and family), and that trust is non-partisan. I think it’s entirely possible we might look back in 100 years and recognise that museums played a significant role in holding our country together through difficult times, by helping people understand and become more tolerant of other points of view.

The second trend I think has culturally transformative potential is the pivot towards reparative practice. Museums can play a significant role in shifting the dialogue in America from what the law demands to a values-based approach to reparations and restitution for descendant communities.

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of technologies in the museum sector. What does this mean for the future?
Museums are, overall, slow to adopt new technologies and new practices. Prior to 2020, relatively few museums implemented practical digital applications – such as business analytics, advanced ticketing and variable pricing – that were transforming for-profit practice.

The pandemic lit a fire under the field, as directors realised these tools weren’t just shiny new toys, they were potential lifesavers.

Going forward, I hope we’ll see a broader appreciation of how an integrated digital strategy can make museums more resilient and successful.

What other lasting impacts is the pandemic having on the museum sector?
Public appetite for digital content has ballooned since the start of the pandemic and many museums have expanded the size and diversity of their audience via digital programming. This has presented opportunities, but also threats.

It’s clear digital can be an effective medium to deliver meaningful content and can have a wider impact on the world and so if museums can solve the thorny problem of monetising digital offerings, it could add a whole new income stream to the bottom line.

However, in terms of threats, will school attendance ever rebound, especially now more teachers are aware of the rich trove of online museum content and the convenience of digital field trips?

Even pre-pandemic, the rising cost of transportation and decreasing tolerance for risk had already begun to threaten the traditional school field trip.

What are the challenges for museums in attracting and retaining staff? What trends are impacting the workplace?
The US is still in an incredibly tight labour market and that’s teaching us all a great deal about what it means to be a good employer, as workers can vote with their feet if they’re unhappy.

For the most part, successful practices for attracting and retaining staff are the same for nonprofit and for-profit employers: flexibility of working conditions, equitable pay and benefits and pathways to advancement. And, of course, creating a healthy workplace culture, including good communications, fair treatment, and mechanisms for meaningful input.

This might mean a change in the allocation of resources, as museums may have to devote more of their budget to human resources as they commit to paying a living wage and providing critical benefits such as parental leave.

One of the biggest challenges to improving museum jobs is getting over the baggage that comes with nonprofit employment, including the expectation that people are prepared to sacrifice pay for the opportunity to do what they love. Maybe one bright spot from the pandemic will be that the disruption of our assumptions about work will free us to create more equitable jobs.

What positive trends are you seeing?
I think the most positive trend in the museum sector over the past century is a shift in its core identity – both in how museums see themselves, and how they’re seen by their communities.

Rather than narrowly identifying themselves by what they do (collect, preserve, interpret), museums increasingly define themselves by the ways in which they can change the world.

In the course of a dozen years of writing TrendsWatch, I’ve documented museums combatting climate change, supporting people who are homeless, advocating for criminal justice reform and fostering empathy. This cause-based work is rooted in their core strengths, but deploys those strengths to meet the needs of their communities.

Individually and collectively, museums are waking up to the power they have to shape the future.

Originally published in Attractions Management 2023 issue 2
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