This is a manifesto championing next practice among museums in the United States. We mean to speak emphatically to museum professionals, boards, funders, and to those in the media who report on the cultural sector, and to museum communities and the public at large who treasure museums. We seek to excite their thinking and stretch their imaginations to recognize both the need and the opportunities for change. Our case is simple: changes in our society and the global environment require that we rethink and repurpose our organizations if we intend to remain relevant in the post-pandemic moment. Some of the changes we propose have been advancing for years, but have gained urgency in a time of plague, social upheaval, technological change, systemic racism, and environmental disaster. Other ideas have come to the fore as a direct consequence of contemporary disruption, economic scarcity, social and political division. Still other insights have come from imaginative colleagues of varied backgrounds across the museum field.
Since the spring of 2020, we have tried to consider the post-plague future, to identify the challenges museum leaders face now and will face going forward, and to envisage the possibilities that may emerge. Our intent is to think beyond the urgent present to a more inclusive, engaged, sustainable future. In recent months, we have convened a series of conversations with colleagues from museums of various kinds across the country and participated in numerous webinars and talking circles. Our proposals are grounded in the insights, the concerns, and the spirit of hope and possibility that suffused these conversations. The museum field needs to have more such conversations as we prepare for an uncertain future.
This is not the first time that social, technological, and environmental changes have dramatically reshaped the museum landscape in the United States. Generation after generation, museums have proved adaptable to new realities. After World War II, for example, the wave of Baby Boomers led to a proliferation of new children’s museums, science centers, and hands-on learning sites, as well as discovery spaces in established museums. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Civil Rights movement and the rise of identity politics wrought a dramatic alteration of the museum landscape, unleashing much creative energy and a radical expansion of culturally specific museums, including African American museums, Jewish museums, Latinx, Asian, and Native American museums. Most recently, natural history museums, zoos, arboreta, gardens, and science centers have responded directly to the dangers of climate change, mass extinction, and environmental disaster.
For now, long-term strategic planning is simply not possible. What is possible is to think strategically and empathetically and to extend our vision beyond the present. Among our 30,000 museums, some will be capable only of modest changes; a few will be able to fully rethink and restructure themselves. But if we want our museums to matter, i.e., to be relevant to the challenges at hand, we need to adapt to novel and new conditions. In what follows, we address six key areas of concern and promise. In our analysis or interrogation of each, we pose three questions: What are the critical challenges we face? Where are their remedies, their resources and safeguards, their opportunities? And how might we get from here to there?