The origin of the challenge
Pat Kane is involved in a future envisioning exercise, looking ahead to 2060. He asked me if I would try to envision museums, and culture in general, in 50 years. [Later I realised I'd misheard him. He's looking ahead to 2050, but what's 10 years here or there in such an uncertain future!]
I’m intrigued to do this because I’m preparing a talk for the MuseumNext conference (Barcelona, May 23rd-25th). I was also mulling a response to this post by Nick Poole, where he imagines what comes after the digital for museums. I agree with his prediction that young people will become more responsible and serious, although I don’t think that will be universal as certain groups will respond to fear with violence as described in this piercing post by Darren Allen. There is much I want to say in response to Nick’s post but this is a start.
In my MuseumNext talk, I’m proposing that when we think about museums in the future, we should not project by what we would like to see or by what is happening now. We should especially try to avoid what we normally do, which is to combine both our ideals and current trends. We also tend to extrapolate mainly from exciting trends in consumer technology. We should instead project from rigorous thinking based on multiple scenarios. (It doesn’t mean you can’t inject exciting technologies into those scenarios but as long as we don’t pretend these are the only drivers of change.)
I argue that a scenario-based approach is the only valid approach to future-thinking when the future promises to be so Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (or VUCA). With scenario planning, you must be strongly informed by a wide range of influence factors, and very clear-sighted about how influential these factors might be and how they interact with each other. You need to consider multiple scenarios in very categorical ways. And you have to keep retelling these stories, reappraising them as the context shifts. The purpose of scenario-planning is to assess threats and opportunities and take a proactive stance so that you can mitigate the threats and benefit from the opportunities. With this approach, you recognise that you can’t really predict the future, but you also come closer to being able to influence the future by understanding the factors that are generating it. If this sounds bloody hard, and confusing, that’s because it is. Perhaps because it’s hard we don’t do it often or well enough.
In my presentation I’m not painting any particular future scenarios for museums, partly because I don’t have time on the platform, and partly because, like I said, it’s bloody hard. However, the difficulty doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it and so I’m setting myself the challenge here.
Scenarios need a broader context
The starting point of a scenario-planning exercise is at a meta-level. You take a broad view of the horizon, and create a matrix of possible global or contextual scenarios based on the strongest influence factors. This is a matrix I’ve produced, taking into account the global ecological and economic crisis. (Elsewhere, I’ve also mapped several tribes or camps onto these quartiles.)
The X axis is a spectrum from ‘continuity’ on the left hand, to ‘radical disruption’ on the right hand. The Y axis is a spectrum from ‘technology-led’ at the top, to ‘nature-led’ at the bottom.
The four quartiles look a bit like this:
1) Red global scenario: Tackle it but as now
Globally, there were strenuous efforts to tackle the environmental and resource crisis, but they were too led by technology and the free market economy, with not enough regulation to reduce ecocide and not enough effort to restore ecosystems. Too little attention was paid to reducing inequality, causing conflict over resources.
2) Black global scenario: Accept decline
Globally, there were pockets of effort to tackle the environmental and resource crisis, but overall it was too desultory and late. Over time, communities and institutions succumbed to accepting the decline. They formed static besieged communities or became nomadic. Some individuals and groups chose or adopted a high-risk but very short life of crime and conflict. Others formed protective spiritual clans that claim to ‘live for now’ as an aspiration to morality.
3) Silver global scenario: Techno-utopia
In the second decade of the 21st Century there was a redoubled effort, supported by all the biggest corporations and countries, to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources and to engineer new sources of food and water. No efforts were enough to stop the ‘tipping point’ of climate change feedbacks. There was a tendency to neglect ‘rewilding’ projects in order to focus on green energy, so the ocean continued to acidify and deserts spread. However, there is hope that reducing greenhouse gas emissions has enabled some human cities to persevere and bring back climate stability over the next 1000 years. In some cities, amongst some groups of people, there are phenomenal technological advancements. It can only be a partial techno-utopia.
4) Green global scenario: Eco-topia
In the second decade of the 21st century there was a realisation that biosphere capital was the only kind of capital with real value and sustainable potential. Efforts to restore and rewild the forests and oceans were redoubled. City-dwellers found all opportunities to grow plants in, on and around their buildings. Energy policies were left without an overarching global strategy, assuming that supplies of fossil fuels would peak anyway. Geo-engineering projects were rejected. Their efforts could not prevent the tipping point of climate change feedbacks but there is hope that wilderness will be restored for biodiversity to thrive in some places again. This is not a global eco-topia but there are some areas where humans and nature are thriving.
All scenarios are personal but you can move towards a shared and evidenced view
If you’re doing scenario-planning in a group, it’s important for participants to express their own ideals about the future, as well as their fears, to establish together what you agree are the most likely scenarios, eliminating prejudice and bringing evidence to the fore.
The only preferable scenarios are on the right hand of this spectrum from continuity to radical disruption. Or to put it more bluntly, ensuring the continuity of diverse life on Earth depends on absolute disruption from the norm. To put it even more bluntly, avoiding human extinction in the next century depends on this. Some people argue that we will avoid total catastrophe because it is so unthinkable that we won’t act in time. Others argue that forces of collapse or entropy will overwhelm our capacity to act, that we’ve done too little too late. The assumption of positive reactive change e.g. that we will sort out our problems because we must, is seen as a fallacy.
My projection is on the hopeful side of realistic (though I’m generally regarded as extremely pessimistic): I believe that some human life will cling on to very small habitable zones and that the unthinkable, extraordinary challenges of global collapse will bring about a major cultural evolution. I think these extraordinary challenges will come earlier than we guess they will because all the major phenomena of ecological collapse have already come earlier (or faster, or more severe) than projected up to this point. We will be in the absolute pit of those extraordinary challenges in 2060 but there may be small pockets of amazing innovation.
My projection is a combination of ecotopia and techno-utopia, as I believe we need to stop fighting between camps that uphold entirely nature-led solutions and those that uphold high-tech solutions and attempt to unite the two. We are part of nature, and our technological symbolic capacities are part of our nature.
Why is this relevant to museums in the future?
Museums might be, in many ways, a grand fabrication, a utopian escape from the world. However, they are also real institutions, usually in real buildings, requiring real human staffing and, most importantly, looking after real material artefacts. Their core purpose is stewardship of cultural and natural heritage for posterity. If they are going to continue to exist and to enact their role as stewards, they need to consider quite how much they need to change in an era of radical disruption from the norm.
The reason why this is so difficult for the museum sector at this point is full of irony. They have already altered hugely. Many museums are going through a process of modernisation, following the lead of businesses in a free-market economy. All over the world museums are growing big shiny extensions or replacing their old buildings and displays, and new museums are being erected from scratch.
To attract more visitors, they’ve had to improve their facilities, and this means higher costs. Just as they have increased their costs, many are facing austerity measures and struggling to sustain their operations (the illustration is the Maxxi in Rome, threatened with closure straight after opening). In turn, their sustainability strategies are more often about keeping the business running than about keeping the planet sustaining life.
Businesses are increasingly acting in short-term interests, discounting the future. Museums have traditionally been slow, acting in long-term interests and supported by state or stately patronage to play this conservative role. This state or stately patronage is faltering, having raised their game and so now to maintain their ‘standards of living’ they are forced to start thinking like businesses. However, as realisation about the emerging crisis starts to dawn, we may see a lot of confusion but also some shift in thinking towards a longer view.
The general context for museums in 2060
Several scenarios for particular museums and/or particular places could be generated from the scenarios of a more general context. It’s important to note that no general context, or particular scenario, is a statement of truth. It’s a stab in the dark, put out there for others to adjust in the light of growing evidence and adding their ideas for solutions. What follows is my stab in the dark of the general context, but one that is based on a lot of reading.
Contextual scenarios will be massively different for museums in different countries, with equatorial areas most in trouble. India, China, southern Russia, the Northern half of Africa, the Mediterranean, Australia, the southern United States, central America and the north of South America will have had large areas too hot to grow food for the past 30 years. Their lands will have been increasingly wrecked by drought, storms, tree diseases, rising sea levels and earthquakes. Museums in these areas may continue to exist where enough investment has created some cities that can be resilient against these environmental ravages. Some cities in the most damaged areas may thrive by profiting from the final extraction of resources or salvaging of industrial waste, the securing of abandoned nuclear plants, or the exploitation of deserts or oceans to supply energy to more habitable lands. Some towns may be ‘seasteaders’, floating to avoid the worst damage from rising seas and to allow seasonal migration to habitable climates, and escape from pollution outbreaks.
The UK, Northern Europe, Canada, Alaska, Russia should still all be relatively habitable, especially in their Northern parts, as should the Southern parts of South America and South Africa, the South of Australia and New Zealand. These areas may have been forced to be habitable by the large numbers of migrants flooding south and north. (However, if large areas of the Antarctic ice shelf have broken off, this will have caused coastal areas to be flooded.) The labour and salvaged resources and knowledge of these migrants may have helped to build protective infrastructure in enlarged cities, with hydroponic biodomes and urban forests to grow food and desalination plants to provide water for them. There will be flood barriers to protect against massive storm surges and bunkers to protect against chemical attack, dust storms or nuclear fallout (from damaged plants on the coast and in the abandoned south).
It may be that there will be a new hierarchy of cultural value, with seed banks, biodiversity reserves, geological materials repositories, and also science exploratories (to accelerate education) seen as more vitally important than museums as repositories and propagators of human cultural knowledge. Cultural museums may have to support these other functions and, in other ways, propagate the means to thrive through biosphere capital. Putting a beehive on the roof and using recycled paper will have long ceased to be seen as enough effort.
Despite an emphasis on pragmatism, it is also likely that there will be a strong sense of nostalgia and clear needs for cultural therapy. So many cultures, both indigenous and industrial-era diaspora, will have been forced out of their original or adopted territories. It will be acknowledged that participating in constructive activities to learn skills, to play with others and ideas, to be inventive and to be immersed in cathartic or ritual situations, are all useful to combat aggressive and depressive behaviours.
In places of intense urban innovation, where technologies are advancing despite ecological collapse, there may be a sense of dislocation from biological origins. People may be augmented with implants to brain/eyes/ears/limbs, eating genetically modified food, maintaining health through epigenetic therapies, contact only with engineered animals, and monitored constantly. They will need cultural engagement that helps them feel connected to the past, to other beings and to their own emotions.
One museum in 2060: The ‘Greater Glasgow Museum’
Proviso: This is all invented because it is in the future where I’ve never been.
Glasgow is one of the very few thriving cities in what was known as the United Kingdom, as Scottish land has become more fertile in these warmer climes. London declined for many years after the great flood when the old Thames Barrier overtopped in 2018 and the financial industry it rested on collapsed in the same decade. This allowed the Northern UK cities to attract more investment, based on an economy of ecological innovation. Scotland suffered greatly in the great freezing storms of 2015-2025 but it recovered as temperatures rose. The migration of people from coastal and southern England placed great strain on its infrastructure in the 2030’s-2050s but by 2060 it has benefited from their investment. It is now three times the population and has absorbed many outlying towns. It is almost unrecognisable, with only the prime historic buildings preserved in the Centre all dwarfed by high rise towers draped with greenery. The buildings near the river stand on stilts or float.
The Greater Glasgow Museum is a consortium of a few large and several smaller museums across the conurbation. This consortium has existed for decades, which has allowed the museums to thrive by sharing resources. They also have a long tradition of making partnerships outside of the city and good links across Europe.
Much of Glasgow is 200 metres above sea level and relatively safe from sea level rises, although the Riverside Museum and Science Centre had to be closed due to continued flood damage. (They were replaced with a flotilla of heritage boats and other floating attractions.)
The less privileged people in Glasgow have returned to living in the tall tenement blocks for which the city was famous, but these new ones are taller, high tech and much lighter than in the old days. Still, they are very crowded and lacking green space, and also very hot and stuffy. So, visiting any public space is very popular.
By 2060, the Scottish Republic has stopped using money, using a high-tech barter-and-investment system instead. The Queendom of England still maintains its sterling currency in an effort to preserve tourism around its heritage. (King Charles had to change the word from Kingdom in the ‘decade of female power’ during the Big Freeze, and it has stuck, much to King William’s discomfort. Kate divorced William and was awarded the Princessipality of Wales, due to his infidelities, so England is on its own.)
The question about whether Glasgow’s museums should be free or not was dropped as soon as this system of barter-investment was widespread. When you visit a museum or attend a course, or go to a food shop, you commit a certain ‘number’ to invest in the city’s cultural infrastructure by donating time, energy, knowledge and shareable goods. (People with less wealth are those with less health, less knowledge and less free time.) You can reduce this debt once in the museum, for example, by contributing knowledge or memories to group interactives or by helping others solve problems. Even just clearing up after your lunch in the cafe helps reduce your debt a tiny amount.
Kelvingrove is the most popular museum because it is such a grand museum in a great garden. However, the architecture is problematic as it was not built to withstand extreme storms and hot temperatures. People love all the games and festivals they run, such as dressing up in pre-fossil era costumes, the Gaelic culture festivals, the lost languages celebrations and, their speciality, murder nights (people die, but they’re only robots). Scotland is now home to people who originated in every country in the world, although most have lost connection with the old ways and languages. Kelvingrove is a place to meet with other people from your ancestor cultures and honour the relics.
The Gallery of Modern Art is also very successful. As global collapse made life increasingly difficult, you might assume that contemporary art dwindled as it was seen as an indulgence. However, artists began to work in ways that meant that engaging with art became the most effective way to learn skills, to try new bodily capabilities, to solve problems, to connect with others and get healed. You can participate in art like this at home but it is something special to go and do it with others at GOMA. The gallery made a name for itself in commissioning art that was participatory and helped people imagine future solutions.
People find the Burrell collection a good deal less relevant to their lives, but they do visit to marvel at how people in the pre-industrial and fossil-industrial eras could spend so much effort making these objects with so little purpose except to accrue value by their uniqueness, and all made by hand!
Those who can afford it, including all certified educators, have augmented reality implants that allow them to project any object or scene as a hologram and to command objects to be fabricated. So, there is no shortage of knowledge about the forms of things. Things can be fabricated using nanotechnology to have authentic smells, textures and tastes so they don’t lack basic knowledge of sensory qualities either. These things are abundant in shared spaces, if not in people’s homes. People don’t really come to museums to learn what things are like. They come because these real objects are understood to be iconic relics. (The Glasgow collections have grown massively since all the safe territories were forced to accept ‘refugee’ objects from abandoned cities. This is no longer a collection of Scottish heritage but stewardship of world heritage.) People also come to see real objects because they lack knowledge of how to craft things by hand with difficulty, to source materials from nature, and to feel what it is to live as part of an authentic natural ecosystem. Museums are valued because people like to learn these ‘hand skills’ with natural materials. Because schools are so specialised, if you can afford to go to them, you may not learn how to work with materials and your hands. Most young people have to work in food production and rewilding projects from the age of 11.
People have also worked out how to conjure up an image or even robotic replicas of the hundreds of thousands of species now extinct. They can also create simulations of these creatures living interdependently. However, if they want to do this with living (even if cloned or genetically engineered) animals it is very slow and expensive. There are many queries about the purpose of doing this, apart from creating attractions. Simulations like this only get done if people give time and knowledge, as there is no money.
Although there are many questions about the value of replicating past living creatures, fewer questions are asked and a great deal of support given to the creation of more holistic eco-environments. These are ‘living worlds’ experimental biodomes where these virtual and living simulations of nature take place. Greater Glasgow is building a Jurassic world attraction as people will flock for kilometres to see the robot dinosaurs and to play the jungle hunt & survive games, outwitting these giant creatures. (Now that people can augment their bodies, competitive games where bodies have to conform to a standard are no longer so interesting. Immersive team challenges where you pool your capabilities are more the thing.) The spin offs of the Jurassic attraction are from biogenetic research reviving prehistoric plant and insect species to benefit depleted ecosystems.
In summary, museums in 2060 Glasgow are much less places to wander and look than they used to be, much more places to learn, make, share, debate and plan ways to outwit the uncertainties of extreme weather and global conflict.