Museums in cities of the future

by • 28 Jan, 2016 • Strategy, Thoughts about museumsComments (3)24027

Museums in the city of the future

As popular public places, museums and other cultural institutions can play a role at the heart of their communities, being involved in all aspects of daily life, both digitally and physically. This allows them to shape our future, and address real issues in society, from healthcare and welfare to employment and security. On 27 January 2016 I gave a keynote about the roles and responsibilities of museum in the city of the future in the DASA in Dortmund, of which you can find an edited transcript below:

We all know the most powerful statistics of cities: Currently, more than half the world’s population lives in cities. In Europe, about three quarters of the population live in a city. Urban life is not the exception. It is the rule. Cities, and especially large capital cities, are magical places. Geoffrey West, who has done the math, shows how cities have disproportionally more of everything.

“The great thing about cities, the thing that is amazing about cities is as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases.” (source)

Cities have disproportional amounts of everything: wealth, job opportunities, ideas, crime… People even walk faster in cities. And of course, cities have more cultural infrastructure, more museums. Amsterdam, the city I call home, easily has over 100 museums, not counting the living room and small neighbourhood museums. London has at least 300. Moscow in a first count by the Dutch Embassy in 2014, at least 562. In 2011 I met a lady in Washington DC who wanted to visit a different museum in her city every day of the year. I don’t know if she succeeded, but it’s mind-blowing such a thing is even possible.

For museum geeks, city life is good life. And not just for them. According to the European Commission, “the quality of urban life in the EU is considered to be crucial for attracting and retaining a skilled labour force, businesses, students and tourists.”

Nevertheless, not all is well in cities. Cities are at the forefront of many developments, including ones that challenge their future. One only has to remember Paris, where in one year two terrible terrorist attacks unsettled the city and the world at large, while at the same time an historic climate agreement was struck.

My argument today is that cultural institutions in general and museums in particular play a significant role in the future of cities. They are part of the key infrastructure to keep our cities, where so much of us live, healthy, liveable, safe and successful in the 21st century.

Museums are the answer to many questions asked in municipal committees and working groups. Museums are the solution to much of the challenges our society are already facing, and will face in the future. Museums play a pivotal role in community building, sustainability, employment. Museums, in the words of Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg in their book Museums, cities and soft power:

“[Museums] are one of our society’s main adaptive strategies for managing change.”

When museums become actors in the change of society, however, they often find that they have to take on new roles and responsibilities and are expected to play an active part in the future of the cities they are based in, and the communities they are part of.

Social innovation and museums

The poster child of the relation between museums and cities is the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The Bilbao-effect states that if you invite a world-renowned starchitect and let them design a landmark building, the additional revenue from taxes and tourism will more than make up for the investment. At the same time, a virtually unknown town is lifted from depravation and the future is ever bright. And it worked:

“Visitors’ spending in Bilbao in the first three years after the museum opened raised over €100m ($110m) in taxes for the regional government, enough to recoup the construction costs and leave something over.” (source)

Guggenheim Bilbao (Santi Rodriguez

Photo: Santi Rodriguez/

In the years since, cities around the world have been scrambling to copy the Bilbao-effect, with mixed success. Not every city becomes a cultural hub with a Gehry building. Not every community is enriched by an international symbol. Even in the world of architecture, much has changed since 1997. From the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Intelligent Life:

“Concerns are being raised about imposing buildings that ignore the urban contexts in which they are built, fail to make any concessions to the human scale, and serve only as three-dimensional branding for their creators. [This reaction is] akin to the return analogue that can be observed throughout contemporary culture – in the enthusiasm for vinyl records and handicrafts, for example. In an increasingly virtual world, there is a longing for human touch and a spirit of resistance to the invisible forces in which we find ourselves enmeshed.” (source)

I’d argue that the Bilbao-effect is too much a top-down, centralized, bureaucratic intervention to work for everyone in in the 21st century, if it did work at any scale at all. The Bilbao-effect is very much like floppy-disks and the dial-up modem: great for the 90s but a bit outdated in the 10s.

A much more realistic poster child for the relation between cities and museums in the 21st century is the case of the Rostov Kremlin, which we also included in Cards for Culture – Museum Edition:

As part of the Golden Circle of Russia, the Rostov Kremlin (fortress) has about the brand recognition to a Russian person as the Guggenheim has to someone from the Western world. The monasteries and churches in town attract many tourists each year, but lost their connection with the local population that saw the institution as rich and aloof. Last year in Moscow I spoke with the director, and she explained that reconnecting with the local population was one of her prime objectives to keeping the Rostov Kremlin sustainable.

To rebuild the relationship between institution and local community, she organised special opening nights for local people, going in-depth into the collection. They organised courses on Sunday afternoons and a programme to train local people to be tour guides. Instead of a distant fortress, the Rostov Kremlin slowly became a locally relevant, accessible institution, which also benefitted the visiting tourists, who are now welcomed by a friendly, supportive local population.

In his book Design when everybody designs Ezio Manzini describes such design processes as a form of social innovation:

“a creative recombination of existing assets (from social capital to historical heritage, from traditional craftsmanship to accessible advanced technology), which aim to achieve socially recognized goals in a new way.”

Museums and other cultural institutions are uniquely positioned to enable such processes. Our collections, spaces, employees and stories are incredibly powerful existing assets. We’re experienced in combining them in new, creative ways. Almost all cultural professionals I meet are socially aware and care about achieving socially recognized goals, at least to some extend. Also, if we give it a try, we can usually bring people together quite well. As such, museums can help provide concrete, practical answers to complex (wicked) problems.

Rostov Kremlin

Rostov Kremlin

Wicked problems and museums

And, as I mentioned before, there are quite some wicked problems museums can help solve. For instance, healthcare and wellbeing. An especially encouraging solution is Rhapsody in the Westminster and Chelsea Hospital. Basically an audio guide that encourage patients to look at art, it helps patients feel better, alleviates boredom and gives them a psychological lift. Elsewhere, Veera Jalava’s Graffiti Grannies project connects seniors and street art. Her K65 crew fights prejudices about elderly people and street art, develops the ability of seniors to read the urban environment and gives them alternative options for participating in society.

Museums contribute to innovation and provide employment opportunities. I fondly remember my first participation in MuseoMix in Nice last November, where we worked with local creatives on developing real products in a weekend. MuseoMix is a sort of socially conscious startup bootcamp, which has generated viable products in the past. (It’s unlikely the connected Olympic torch the team I was part of designed will it ever make into production, but if the IOC is reading: we’re happy to take this further!)

Museums even play a role in highly tricky topics such as social inclusion. The international museum debate #museumsrespondtoferguson did not only explore how museums could be more inclusive and better represent the different voices in our communities, but also highlighted cases of museums contributing positively to inclusion around the world.

There are countless other examples of museums solving wicked problems around topics such as education, sustainability, community building, mental health…

Open, inclusive, collaborative, distributed, fun: Social museums

There are common themes in all the cases above. The projects are predominantly bottom-up, initiated by creative communities within or outside of museums. They’re distributed and collaborative. They stem from a different kind of leadership; not the hierarchical leadership of a curator or director, but from the individual responsibility of (museum) professionals. The projects an integrated part of society, rather than an add-on. Most of them, as a consequence of the characteristics as much as by design, are resilient.

The type of museum that runs this sort of projects is what I call a social museum. A social museum is a place where all stakeholders work together to create value and achieve a mission. This value, almost always, is social value. The mission, almost always, social impact and innovation.

The social museum goes by many names: the design-driven museum, the distributed museum, the participatory museum, the creative museum, even the post-digital museum. All the adjectives are characteristics of the museum of the future. As such there is not one type of social museum. There is no fixed template. In Amsterdam, many of the highly-local, volunteer-run neighbourhood museums are social museums, very much in touch with the social issues of the specific communities they work with. At the same time, the behemoth of cultural Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, has many characteristics of a social museum. They’re open, inclusive, collaborative, distributed, quite often fun (and toddler-friendly!).

The most convincing example of a social museum, still, is the story of the Derby Silk Mill. Not only do they contribute directly to social innovation and impact to the community of Derby, they organised their transformation process on social design principles.

It’s a simple sum. Cities, which are at the forefront of social developments, have most need for social innovation. Also, generally speaking, they have the best cultural infrastructure to address the social issues at hand. With government stepping back on its (financial) involvement in museums and other institutions, museums looking to stay relevant need to step up their role in social innovation in the cities they are part of.

This requires institutions to change. Fortunately, cities have a disproportional amount of ideas and creative people that, in combination with a museum’s existing assets, offer great opportunities for museums to adapt to their new role and responsibilities as managers of social innovation.

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