The future of museums – short thought


This article represents number two in our ongoing series of “short thoughts”, written by Art Radar founder, Kate Cary Evans. Continue to follow the series to read Kate’s musings on contemporary art world developments and trends.


The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. Image from

From time to time our contributors who are based around the world come into Hong Kong and we get together for a chat usually in the afternoon at one of the wooden tables in the Main Bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. They are a smart team at Art Radar, and I look forward to these meetings because conversation is provocative and stimulating.

At our last meeting, sitting under the fans in this 1913 heritage building, one of the group mentioned that she was applying for an internship at a prestigious international art museum. As part of the application process she was required to write 500 words on the future of art museums and she wanted ideas. It turned out to be a great starting point for a vigorous debate.

In the recent past, museums have played several roles but the principal two are education and its traditional job of caring for collections of culturally significant artifacts. Attracting tourists, commemorating people, entertainment and promotion of culture have also emerged as important but lesser activities as traditional funding sources have come under pressure or change.

How will this increasingly globalised, digitally-connected world press our art museums into new shapes?

The digital world will be the most significant force for change in the near future. As a centre for educating the masses, the museum faces severe competition from the Internet. Education and the Internet are made for one another. Although some art museums are doing an excellent job of developing their Internet-based education resources, Internet schools, courses and resources are cheap to set up, content is difficult to protect and there are no barriers to entry. It is not worthwhile for museums to compete on mass education.

Instead they should look to their competitive advantages. What do art museums have which no one else has and no one else can get? They have their physical collections. They have their physical buildings. And they have their brands.

In the recent past, funding pressures and politics have forced emphasis onto increasing footfall. Museums have been producing dumbed-down shows to attract as many people as possible including non-native language tourists and young school children. This is doing nothing for the preservation of the best brands.

Some museums have produced startlingly spectacular blockbuster exhibitions to attract mass numbers of visitors. Great fun… and perhaps there will always be room for these kinds of shows, but only in large museums. People like to gasp in awe and that requires a sizeable structure.

Just as museums cannot compete with the power of the Internet to educate the masses cheaply and conveniently, small museums will not be able to compete with the power of the Internet to entertain the masses either.

So what to do? Perhaps museums would do better to avoid providing services designed for mass appeal and instead focus on services based around their collections. Perhaps their collections could become physical teaching tools and the museums themselves centres of niche scholarship at the highest level. Perhaps they should align themselves with well-endowed universities where scholarship is valued more than eyeballs. Let fees, endowments and gifts from students pay for the archives, teachers and collections.

Museums do not need to worry about including, excluding or connecting with people so much any more: much of this can be done cheaply, organically and automatically on the Internet, particularly as better interactive software develops. Now what is needed more than anything is excellence in scholarship.

I have taken a provocative stance and am willing to be dissuaded. Where do you think the future of museums lies? Leave a comment below.

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The future of museums – short thought — 3 Comments

  1. I would suggest if museums wish to continue being relevant to present and future audiences, then they need to present works of art, in whatever variety, for real people to see and enjoy. Rather than wacky, side-shows designed for shock-appeal!

    Museums are not art galleries!

    It seem to me that alot of the stuff presented by museums are so far removed from reality, from the mindset of the common people (the very crowd you need – because they always number in the millions!). They cater instead to the smaller crowd of special-interests, who may be from the society crowd, but, who cannot sustain your project for the long run!

    Instead of keeping shoving nonsense down the throats of everyday folks (am sure one is acquainted with the crap I mean)…its far better to ask them what they desire – so politely. The internet is winning, largely because it doesn’t force them, it just present options (lots and lots of options), and if they don’t like something, it is simply removed. Folks are always yearning for something (some times anything)…but something. In the end, you have to always remember that life and events moves very fast on a daily basis. Present substance, which aid people in their daily rituals!

  2. Thanks Michael for your interesting comments. We love the idea of giant art on the sides of buildings in Hong Kong! The research findings you quote are provocative, I wonder if other readers have any supporting or contradictory research on this subject? We would love to know.

  3. I agree with your analysis, that it is hard for museums to compete with the internet, however there are lots of museums that have good school programs for kids. But the time where museums are centres for education for the masses is indeed over. Studies show that 70 % of the people that go to a museum not really enjoy it , they are often invited by friends or a colleague or taken along by wife or husband.
    As a Museum one has several options , The easy way is being elite and not care about the 70 %
    The other option is to try to improve the conditions for the 70 %, what is it that would make them come back voluntarily.
    It turns out that a few simple things would help a lot, Better service / food and coffee would improve the visit for 19 % , also I have often wondered why the food / coffee can be so bad , if one can buy art for millions.
    The second thing is take away the stigma that if one does not like it , one does not understand art. It is ok to like and dislike.

    You suggest closer cooperation with universities, well yes that could be a solution but it is unlikely that fees and endowments would pay for keeping a great collection.
    Maybe it would be better to educate the population
    lets start with putting art education in to the schools.
    lets make going to a museum something normal and less elite
    lets being at a museum something fun or interesting
    Lets make art a part of our life, when in Hong Kong or Shanghai i am always taken back by the mega commercials on buildings , but it would be so easy to have art on some of these buildings as well.

    kind regards

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