From the Field

Considering the Museum of the Future

January 9, 2014

by Michael Rush

Founding Director, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

Michigan State University


    No one ever claimed that museums need be “agents of change.” However, the common museum mission to collect and preserve collections has yielded to demands of “education” and “outreach.” To this extent, we have challenged ourselves to become more outward looking and focused on the needs of the public we serve. This is all to the good. In terms of education, we do seem to want to be agents of change for the betterment of society.

    “Change,” as we know, can too easily be considered a threat to those not inclined toward it. So can discussions of “the future,” as if what we are doing in the present is somehow inadequate. In this brief paper, I want to offer thoughts about the future (about which I am no expert) not in any way to criticize what we are doing today within our missions, but to suggest what we need to learn from what innovative institutions of all kinds are already doing and ask ourselves, “are we thinking of the future?”

    At the Aspen gathering, organized by Olga Viso, a group of us gathered and tried to envision a tabula rasa for the future of our imaginary museum: no building, no collection, no Board: how would we begin to think about this entity? Can there be a museum, some asked, without a collection? What about galleries, lecture halls, indeed, restaurants, learning rooms? Right away, we asked ourselves to disregard these common aspects of museums, at least for a minute, and asked each other to think not in terms of a “place” (designer building or monumental Empire-looking palace) but more in terms of the “idea” of the museum ….. in the digital age and beyond.

    In his recent white paper, Michael Govan gave an excellent and concise summary of challenges (changing demographics, evolving donor patterns, etc) facing us today and into the near future. I would like to look beyond these challenges (not that they aren’t real, for surely they are) to what should lie beyond the immediate for us. It is hard to avoid clichés when discussing the future, but, let’s face it, with Google glasses, drone delivery systems, immersive 3-D movies and video games, instagrams, cellphones (as near and necessary as limbs), and on and on, how are we to engage the idea of the museum and the audience of the future (the present, actually) in terms of the new and emerging normal of a digital world?

    Some say that museums are ever more essential in this as-if world due to their exhibition of “authentic” artworks; artworks not reproducible by mechanical means. Enlisting Walter Benjamin’s notion of the unique “aura” of the artwork, this argument goes, nothing can replace the original, hand worked , painting. (It is usually paintings that are referred to in this regard although it’s been more than a century since art expanded beyond the canvas.) The problem with this approach is that the very notion of “authentic” is evolving in ways that are eluding many of us. The multi-platform, most often digitally based, activities mentioned above are very much experienced as “authentic” in today’s world. Providing “authentic” experiences to our visitors can no longer be confined to traditional objects, for these objects, as necessary as they are to our common cultural heritage, are merely a part of the actual and potential artistic experience (think of multi-screen video environments, sensuround art projects such as the artists collective rAndom International’s  “Rain,” (at MoMA) or the recent crowd pleasing supernatural installation by Yayoi Kusama at New York’s Zwirner Gallery. Another issue raised by art events in the last decade is the ever expanding place of the commercial gallery, as opposed to the slower paced museum, in redefining the art experience).

    To me the most burdensome block to imagining a museum of the future is our attachment to “place,” our buildings. What if our museum could be experienced at bus stops, airports, everyday in schools, factories, on phones, video games, projected from satellites, in body implants, in operating rooms, and so on. I’m not talking about hanging pictures in these places. We need artists to create what has not been seen before. Tall order, certainly. The question here is one of an infinitely expanded notion of art: what it is and what it can be; how it is experienced and how it can be experienced. If Duchamp cracked open the history of art by exhibiting a urinal, a shovel, a peep show installation, we need, for our time, artists who can do the same for this new world of ours. This is not at all to suggest that we abandon our buildings, but we need to think beyond them.

    This is the second most burdensome block: a lack of artists interested in the new world economy (in the broadest sense). Museums are about artists. They are the life blood of our endeavors. I fear that art schools and our ever expanding monetized art world are keeping artists from really exploring the new world. Art schools, it must be noted, are caught in a catch-22 here: they don’t teach the new possibilities because they don’t have the artist faculty to do the teaching. It’s a vicious circle.

    As for the money chain, artists are trained to find a gallery and enter the dizzying vortex of exhibitions, art fairs, biennials, VIP studio visits, etc. Despite the vastly expanded numbers of galleries, the art world is still operating within a nineteenth century model based on the arcades of Paris: shopping structures consisting of small stores (read: booths) that catered to shoppers’ every desire. Art fairs and gallery districts are updated arcades. These arcades, in a short period of time, yielded to the more fancy department stores, which, invoking Benjamin again, were “wholly adapted to arousing desires.” The art object is evermore an object of desire for which people will pay vast sums. This is the system we ready artists for.

    The challenge I am posing is for us, as the museum community, to take the future as seriously as Google, Amazon, and any number of lesser known entities are. And I mean a future not based on what we already are doing in our museums. A website supposedly devoted to new thinking in museums ( is essentially an advertisement for how new technologies can be used to translate into 3D and video tours  exhibitions and collections already operating in museums. The so-called  “Museum of Tomorrow,” a Calatrava designed multi-million dollar waterfront museum currently being constructed in Rio de Janeiro in anticipation of the Olympics, has no information about its program available. It’s all about the building. There is, as yet, no program.

    I would like to suggest that we seriously engage artists (both emerging and established) to consider these challenges, perhaps in consort with leaders of innovative world-changing companies; not in hopes of our becoming more like these companies, but in hopes of being humble enough to admit that the world may be passing us by and we need help in imagining our own futures.

    It is important to note that, as we venture into unchartered territories, the need for genuine connoisseurship will be ever more important. This, too, is a tough request because the expert eye of curators is nurtured by looking over long periods of time. If there is nothing to look at in this new realm it will be difficult to develop this critical discernment. I do believe it possible, however, as some very basic principles will always pertain: Even as YouTube posts 40,000 videos a day, the curtorial eye can judge the quality of the idea and the sophistication of the realization of the idea. This may appear to be anti- the free for all notion of participatory art, open source art, etc., but I, for one, remain interested in quality. I want my sophisticated curator to sift through the overload of content today and find those gems that we can agree on as worthy art.

    One last time, from Benjamin:

“In all areas of production, from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the development of technology proceeded at a much slower rate than the development of art. Art could take its time in variously assimilating the technological modes of operation. But the transformation of things that set in around 1800 dictated the tempo to art, and the more breathtaking this tempo became, the more readily the dominion of fashion overspread all fields. Finally, we arrive at the present state of things: the possibility now arises that art will no longer find time to adapt somehow to technological processes.” (The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 171)

    Benjamin wrote that around 1930. Perhaps it’s time to adapt.