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The future of museums is about attitude, not technology


In an age where digital media often set the agenda in the cultural heritage sector, Jasper calls for sober-minded deliberation. He has run a series of digital strategy workshops, but the fundamental advice he offers museums is to not get carried away by all the sparkling new technologies. What is essential is to stage and display their collections and knowledge in ways that are truly relevant and engaging to people. To do this, however, they need to understand how digital media transform society and how people think.


New technologies have always influenced society. From the printing press which helped initiate the reformation to the industrial revolution and now the digital revolution.*1 Society influences technology as well. Take for instance differences in language, as exemplified by Michael Anti in a 2011 TED talk: “One Chinese tweet is equal to 3.5 English tweets. (...) Because of this, the Chinese really regard this microblogging as a media, not only a headline to media.”*2 The technologies of the digital revolution change our societies as much as our societies influence the development and use of such technologies.

Before tinkering with new technologies, every organisation grounded in society should understand their implications on society and vice versa.

Technology that is implemented naively will amplify existing inequalities.*3 This is also true for museums. Ramesh Srinivasan describes, for instance, how differences between museum ontologies and those of source communities limit the diversity of cultures and voices that are represented by collections. A ‘naive’ online collection might actually alienate people from an institution, rather than open the institution up to more and more diverse communities.

I believe that if museums were to take a step back from implementing the latest technologies just to be on the bandwagon (“We have to be on Facebook!”) and reflected on the relationship between technology and society and its influence on the role of museums, new opportunities would become clear that will help museums to be meaningful in the 21st century. Some of these opportunities I will describe in this paper.

The head of the long tail

A first opportunity is the abundance of information contemporary society is faced with. A study by Gantz and Reinsel shows that the amount of information in the world more than doubles every two year.*4 Such numbers still exclude the two thirds of the world population without internet access. One can only imagine what will happen to the amount of information easily accessible anywhere when these people join the digital age.

For years, Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail (2006) has given people a reason to put as much information online as possible. Unlike in the physical world, shelf and wall space are nearly free and unlimited online. Google will open up even the most marginal content (the long tail) to people who are potentially interested. Research by Anita Elberse has shown reality is more complicated. The vast majority of people will only access the most popular information (the head). For instance the top 10% of songs on Rhapsody accounts for 78% of all plays. The top 1% for 32% of plays.*5 The head gets most attention and only highly enthusiastic geeks and researchers ever venture into the long tail. The long tail might even scare people off. Too much choice is frightening, or as Barry Schwartz says in a 2009 TED talk: “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.”

In the 2012 summer edition of Wired UK, Neal Pollack explains how finding meaning in the myriad of information is the new obsession in technology. Museum curators and researchers have been doing so for years: sorted through thousands of objects to build exhibitions and do research that matters. In the digital age, this role gets renewed importance, now that curators do not only need to sort through their own collection to find the ‘head’, but also through the information produced by non-professionals on platforms like Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Museums can take a leading role in making sense of the abundance of information in today’s world and making the best more accessible. I believe that such curatorial processes will be much more valuable to virtually everyone, than continuing to digitise ever more of our collections in the hope some geek or researcher, one day, will bump into them via Google.

Factual stories that resonate

It will soon not be enough simply to present the best. Competition for people’s limited time is fierce and will likely only increase. Museums need more than ever to attract audiences to their work.

Intel’s Museum of Me*6 was a useful project for people interested in the future of museums. For one, it proved that museums are appealing enough to market a technology product. Also it proved that the internet generation can be encouraged to visit a museum, as long as the museum tells a story that resonates with them. Real world museums such as the Zagreb Museum of Broken Relationships prove the same thing.*7 [1]

In her book Resonate (2010), Nancy Duarte explains how to tell a story that resonates with its audience. One of the lessons is to make the audience the hero of the story: whatever you tell should be about them. Quite often, museum collections are related to the audience, although it might not always be clear why or how. Other suggestions Duarte gives are the use of visuals, emotions and development. A good story is factual, but also emotional and interactive and uses mixed media to keep people’s attention.

In the digital age there seems to be a divide between factual and more emotional stories. Wikipedia articles are factual, YouTube cat videos emotional. I believe there’s room in the middle for museums. Projects like Open Culture and Crash Course pioneer by telling stories that are both factual and engaging enough to resonate with their audience.*8 Museum professionals have the skills and intelligence to take curated information and turn it into stories that resonate.

[1] Example of a resonating story. The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb.

[1] Example of a resonating story. The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb.
CC BY 4.0 Jasper Visser

Online learning and 21st century skills

A third opportunity is the rise of online education and the increasing focus on 21st century skills.

Coursera is a free online education platform. It is successful with over 2.5 million users and is enhancing academic recognition of the skills people acquire online.9 What makes Coursera successful, in part, is that it combines the best elements of traditional education with the new opportunities technology create. For instance, regular traditional tests keep students involved while at the same time, they can pause and “rewind” what their teachers say at will – as Daphne Koller, one of the founders, explains.*10

It is not unlikely that online learning will replace a significant part of the curriculum of many schools and universities in the near future. This means some of the traditional aspects of education in society will change. For instance: where will people meet to watch online lectures and where will they learn skills such as global awareness and civic literacy?

As the Institute for Museum and Library Studies states in their 2009 publication Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills museums can, and should, play a pivotal role in the education of communities. A museum should look at education as a constant in people’s digital and physical lives and as a strong tool to make the connection from online to onsite. Even more than to traditional education, museums can play a pivotal role as content providers and service facilitators to online education. [2]

[2] Coursera.

[2] Coursera.

Systems for direct value exchange

By taking a more proactive role in the above, museums obviously will add more direct value to the lives of people. The last and maybe most interesting trend, therefore, is the opportunity to establish more direct systems for value exchange to support the expectations of the audience.

One of the greatest clichés of the digital age is that is has democratised the relationship between organisations and individuals. Although critics warn us not to overestimate the liberating effects of digital media, it is undeniably true that if an organisation really wants to connect directly with its audience and interact with them, the tools are there.*11 This means information, opinions and creativity can flow more freely than before the digital age.

The same applies to value (money). More direct systems of funding such as crowdfunding can partly replace traditional funding models. For example, according to Kickstarter 10% of all movies at the Sundance independent film festival in 2012 were crowdfunded.*12

Direct value exchange means that an individual and an organisation directly negotiate with each other, often via an online platform. This means that each deal should be clear and beneficial to both parties involved,- for instance an exhibition catalogue and four tickets at discount rate in exchange for the funds to build the exhibition.

By pioneering with such direct value exchange systems, museums will not only find new sources of revenue, but also build supporting communities that can clearly identify the added value of the institution to society, even before society requires it in times of financial cuts and dwindling interest in heritage and the arts.

The right attitude

The four trends I’ve outlined above are by no means exhaustive. Having worked with close to a hundred (cultural) institutions in recent years, I know that the great diversity in museums and societies means there are different opportunities everywhere. The overarching idea is that by taking a step back from contemporary trends in technology and focusing on the wider trends at the intersection of society and technology, in my experience museums can make much better use of their resources and better address long term strategic objectives.

I am aware that I’ve left the important next question unanswered: how? In the discussions at Sharing is Caring 2012, some elements of the how-question have been answered: human resource management, project management, leadership. Without going into detail on the how-question (which would take at least another 2,000 words), I think it suffices to say that the same conclusion applies here. Take a step back and reflect on the larger trends in society and how technology can play a role in them.

In the end, I strongly believe that with the right attitude museums can play a pivotal role in tomorrow’s societies, regardless of the changes in technology that no doubt will occur. By focusing on some trends I have intended to present the wider idea that what is needed is an attitude of inquisitive pro-activeness, where the consequence of trends rather than the trends themselves are the main focus of strategy and action. [3]

[3] Post-its after a strategy session about the future of museums.  CC BY 4.0 Jasper Visser

[3] Post-its after a strategy session about the future of museums.
CC BY 4.0 Jasper Visser


*1  See for instance Das and Kolack, 2007.
*3  Toyama, 2011.
*5  Get a different point of view on ‘the long tail’ in Sanderhoff’s article p. 48 ff.
*8  See og
*9 Se og Korn, 2013.
*11 See for instance Morozov, 2011.


Chris Anderson, The Long Tail, Revised and Updated Edition: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Hyperion, 2008

Michael Anti, Behind the Great Firewall of China, updated July 2012, consulted 27 February 2013,

Mitra Das & Shirley Kolack, Technology, Values and Society: Social Forces in Technological Change Revised Edition, Peter Lang Publishing, 2007

Nancy Duarte, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Wiley, 2010

Anita Elberse, Should You Invest in the Long Tail? Harvard Business Review, July 2008

John Gantz & David Reinsel, Extracting Value from Chaos, consulted 24 February 2013,

Institute of Museum and Library Services, Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills, Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2009

Daphne Koller, What we’re learning from online education, updated August 2012, consulted 4 March 2013,

Melissa Korn, Big MOOC Coursera Moves Closer to Academic Acceptance, updated 7 February 2013, consulted 27 February 2013,

Neal Pollack, The exabyte revolution, David Rowan (Editor in Chief), Wired UK, Vol. 8, 2012

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice, updated September 2006, consulted 24 February 2013,

Ramesh Srinivasan, Re-thinking the cultural codes of new media: The question concerning ontology, New Media & Society, Vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 203-223

The best of Kickstarter 2012, consulted 4 March 2013,

Kentaro Toyama, Technology as amplifier in international development, ACM New York, Proceedings of the 2011 iConference, 2011, pp. 75-82

Updated: 7.jul.2014
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