Art Works Blog

Looking Forward: Center for the Future of Museums

Today we've asked some of our partners at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Center for the Future of Museums to help us launch a new feature in which we ask artists and arts leaders to answer the question: Where are you seeing opportunities for growth or unexplored challenges in your field?

AAM's mission is " to nurture excellence in museums through advocacy and service." Some of its programs include an annual meeting and museum expo for staff from domestic and international museums, a virtual bookstore with texts covering every aspect of the museum field, and the Center for the Future of Museums which, among other things, fosters deep engagement with cultural, economic, and political issues in the field.

We spoke with AAM President Ford W. Bell, Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) Founding Director Elizabeth Meritt, and CFM Council Members Garry Golden and Day Al-Mohamed. Here's how they responded to our question. (All photos courtesy of American Alliance of Museums)


Ford W. Bell

Ford W. Bell

An opportunity, but yet a chronic challenge for museums and one that is likely to become more critical in coming years, surrounds how we communicate the value we bring to our communities through the diverse services that museums provide to a range of audiences. Museums do essential work: as educational institutions; as economic engines; as community institutions committed to addressing a diverse range of needs; and as centers of lifelong learning. But we often do a poor job of telling our stakeholders about it. To be sure, we have made great progress in this area, and the entire museum field is rallying to the cause of advocacy. Governments at all levels need to be made aware that museums are vital community anchors and assets, and in fact are integral to the success of communities large and small. Given the budget realities facing all governments for the foreseeable future, this is more critical than ever--not only to preserve and expand government support of museums, but also to be certain the media and the public fully understand the broad scope of museums’ contributions to our country. The only way to succeed in this is to speak with one clear and united voice. -- Ford W. Bell, President, American Alliance of Museums

Elizabeth Merritt

Elizabeth Merritt. Photo courtesy of AAM

From a long-term perspective, much of the current philanthropic funding to museums is ephemeral. It supports the creation of great programs and services that last exactly as long as the funding stream, and then disappear. If we are lucky, these projects leave a legacy documenting “lessons learned.” All too often, they simply disappear. One opportunity for growth in the museum field is to change the way museums seek funding—encouraging individual philanthropists, foundations, even government agencies to lend us capital. We should approach funders with proposals backed by sustainable business plans and a timeline for repaying some or all of the funding they provide to start or scale up these projects. At worst, the funder doesn’t get their money back, and are no worse off than had they given an outright grant. At best, they both jump-start an initiative with baked-in sustainability, AND they get to recycle the funding and reinvest it in the field. With funding programs structured around sustainability, museums will get training and support on how to design long-term income streams. And the field as a whole, over time, has access to a growing pool of capital to fund new ventures. -- Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums


Garry Golden

Garry Golden

Future opportunities are often those based at the intersections of great change. For museums, an intersection of opportunity exists at the crossroads of America’s aging Baby Boomer population and learning-focused technologies able to support a culture of lifelong learning. As they have done in their past, America’s Baby Boomer generation will likely redefine social norms as they enter a new life stage. Marketers now speak of Boomer spending shifting from material things to experiences. Cultural observers expect this generation to focus their time and resources on brain health and enrichment learning. They will seek out institutions and brands able to deliver programs and services that keep their minds healthy and engaged in learning more about the world and themselves. We see more media attention to defining buzzwords such as active-aging, creative-aging, and aging-in-place. All these terms aim to frame aging in a positive lens--creating an opportunity for museums to link aging with lifelong learning.

Technology to support learning experiences is also changing in significant ways. We are witnessing the early days of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and social learning-instructor communities such as Skillshare. The next wave of innovation will be shaped by advances in artificial intelligence and the idea of intelligent assistants designed to learn about the learner--then adjust content to keep us engaged and asking more questions. Today, one such assistant--IBM Watson™--is helping oncologists develop effective treatment plans. Someday soon Watson™ might help guide journeys from museum collection themes to our own lifelong learning experiences. A creepy line for many, but a compelling paradigm for lifelong learning to others!

Focusing on lifelong learning among aging populations might help museums move beyond their primary brand of "education" coupled with the experience of K-12 students—toward a broader brand associated with creating learning communities of aging Baby Boomers. -- Garry Golden, Member, CFM Council


Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed

When it comes to opportunities for growth and unexplored challenges or gaps in the museum field, one that is rising in importance is that of disability access.

There are 303.9 million people in the United States, and of those, 56.7 million have disabilities. That represents 19 percent of the civilian non-institutional population. Of adults age 65 and older, 50 percent have disabilities. Today, 1 in 8 Americans are older than 65. In 2034, the ratio will jump to 1 in 5. Clearly, disability as it relates to museums is not a “minority” issue at all.

As curators and exhibitors of arts and culture, museums and other community-focused entities need to embrace the principles of universal design. Universal design is “the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.”

For museum and arts patrons of the future, thought needs to be put into the usability of physical spaces, including companion care restrooms, assistive listening systems, the positioning of labels and size of fonts on signs, websites, and other broader technological access to programs and information. Usable, friendly design, such as providing seating and reducing ambient noise, having information available through more than one means (e.g. signage and audio tours), improves the museum experience for all visitors. This isn’t just “accessibility” allowing greater access for individuals with specific impairments or limitations, but usability. It is making the space, exhibits, programs, and information something that everyone can connect to. As stated by Ronald Mace, director for the Center for Universal Design, “Let's design all things, all the time, for everyone.” -- Day Al-Mohamed, Member, CFM Council/Senior Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Labor

Have an idea for our next Looking Forward feature? Let us know in the comments or find us on Twitter (@NEAarts).


I loved the idea which you have written on couple of last paragraph that we should developed such infrastructure of facility so that each and every like rich,poor,disable,healthy,unhealty etc get a clear and safe acccess to the muesuem.I am sure that if USA does it then every will country will follow the pattern and make there respective mueseum less with such facility.I have read on some current affairs the UK is also planning for the same.UK had just launched a muesume for world war 1 solderi who died for them and they also included the name of many soldier from many countries.. Indeed a good thinking.

Submitted by Eric Siegel (not verified) on

Thanks for this..Beyond "access" for people with disabilities is representing the experience of people with disabilities in museums.  At one moment in history it was adequate to assure that african americans had access to equal education, but the evolution of the civil rights movement demonstrated that the perspective of african americans was missing from public discourse and education experiences.  It will be interesting to see the world incorporate the perspectives of people with disabilities, rather than simply making it easier for them to gain access to the same experiences others have.At ASTC this year, several colleagues and I will be presenting on exhibitions and programs that strive to communicate the voices of people with disabilities.  Beyond Universal Design to a more inclusive discourse. Eric Siegel 

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