Museum TrendsWatch: Right-Sizing the World

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 29, 2022

This week completes our review of Center for the Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch report and its five pillars. This week’s pillar is Right-Sizing the World.

This week continues our review of Center for the Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch report. The Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) is under the auspices of American Alliance of Museums and offers a trends forecast that typically covers five topics, sometimes all related, sometimes not. This year the unifying theme is Museums as Community Infrastructure.

The Capitalist (Museum) Model

CFM Founding Director Elizabeth Merritt opens this section with the thought-provoking observation that museums have largely based their success on capitalist models. This is something we don’t tend to think of as museum staff. Most museums are nonprofit institutions and somehow I think we (including myself) don’t further analyze the economic model our not-for-profit business (museum) runs on. As Merritt explains: “Many [museums] use for-profit values of power, productivity, and economic metrics of success.” Essentially, these capitalist values are what lead to decisions of collection and program growth in an effort to try and increase audience numbers, memberships, donations, and ticket sales. And how is the capitalism model working for us? I think most of us can agree, not well.

The Challenge

Merritt’s opening question is the ultimate question: “How can [museums] challenge the paradigm of perpetual growth and model what it looks like to build healthy, sustainable systems based on values of public service?”

What Museums Can Do

The core actions from this section are:

  • Identify the limits of growth measurements as the only success determinate.
  • Choose metrics for success that can foster more equitable and sustainable outcomes.
  • Contribute to healthy and equitable economies through museum job creation.
  • Help the larger community ecosystem foster sustainable tourism strategies.
  • “Right size” in a way that prioritizes equity and preserves heritage.

A Framework for Action

Each TrendsWatch section includes an “Action” area. The following is a summary of those actions for this section:

Inward Action

  • Engage the museum administration/governing authority and staff in an exploration of how to define success.
  • Consider the “right size” concept, its application to the museum, and the possible benefits to all stakeholders.
  • If adopting a less capitalistic concept of success, identify metrics that can support the new success model and determine how to gather metric information.
  • Examine the museum’s staff compensation policies to correct (likely) underpayment or exploitive labor practices.

Outward Action

  • In cities experience overtourism, help craft strategies help to preserve the city and the resident’s quality of life.
  • In cities that are shrinking, assist in planning how to downsize in a way that prioritizes livability in the community.

More Information and Examples from Related Movements

This is a topic that can be more easily understood with examples on what other non-capitalist models or movements are happening elsewhere in society. The report includes the following in their roundup:

  • Circular economy
  • Sustainable tourism
  • Right-sizing cities
  • Reshaping for-profit culture
  • Employees wellbeing as a metric for success
  • Questioning “more is better”

For more information on what peer museums have done in this area, and for more in-depth analysis on this topic, please view the original report available via the CFM TrendsWatch website.

Conclusion

This ends our coverage of the annual TrendsWatch report. True to form, this year’s TrendsWatch was overwhelming in both the problems facing us as well as the ideas for how to even begin to overcome them. And, of course, these last few years have been particularly rough for everyone. If you find yourself wondering where to start, I recommend choosing one TrendsWatch topic to tackle. Take some time to learn more about the trend and explore the actions and examples covered in the report. What feel right to you? What can the museum support experimenting in without causing further (significant) work? Begin in a corner and you will soon see yourself out.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter. And remember to check out Lucidea’s Argus solution for powerful and innovative museum collections management.

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