Photo credits Benedict Johnson, courtesy of The British Museum

Photo credits Benedict Johnson, courtesy of The British Museum

I was recently asked to speak at The British Museum's Curator of The Future Conference and as I do with most things, decided to not speak about the future but on the present. We have a cultural anticipation towards everything that is in the future or the past, seldom do we dedicate any time let alone our resources to create a better present. So I really wanted to focus on actionable ways museums & galleries could transform their present for the future rather than speculate on a future that never comes. 

However, I ended up on a speculative narrative nonetheless. Cue in, Museum of The Non-Existent Future. What is it? Well, that question is rather pointless as it doesn't exist yet nonetheless it also probably never will come into existence. It's part of a collaborative project with Somewhere where we're interested in how individuals and organisations are evolving and what this transformation means for the future of work rather than speculating on a possible future that might never come. You can find out more about the project by going here

We're interested in inverting the discussions around what makes a good curator from one who listens to the collections and works to the one who is critically able to mediate between the collections and the people curious about those said collections. I understand there is a huge burden to bear as one takes on the tradition of curation, especially in this day & age when curation as a word permeates across digital borders from content curation to amateur photographers' building their own galleries online. Technology doesn't pose a threat to traditional culture rather offers an opportunity to evolve; which is the very definition of culture. 

"A basic pattern of assumptions invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration" Edgar Shein (2002)
Photo credits Benedict Johnson, courtesy of The British Museum

Photo credits Benedict Johnson, courtesy of The British Museum

The curator of the future, then must be one who is adequately able to adapt and respond to these changing assumptions and integrate such patterns within the broad knowledge that he/she holds as a cultural innovator. I really want to invert how the role of a curator has hitherto been viewed as one who aesthetically and meticulously displays collections to make the best sense to one who responds to how a group or variety of audiences comprehend such collections? And this inversion entirely transforms how museums & galleries have so far functioned as social entities. 

I, as a visitor or an audience member am used to consuming information in a certain way be it via my phone or talking wirelessly while crossing the street or even listening to podcasts as I drive and these have huge implications to what we come to expect from cultural institutions as a society. It is no longer my obligation as a social being to fully grasp and train to participate within how a museum or gallery works rather if you want my attention, I expect you to deliver the information/artworks/collections in a fashion that is accessible to my unique lifestyle. 

This might come as a shock to most cultural professionals, but this really isn't anything new. Some organisations who have begun to recognise this pattern have embraced new technologies, however they are often based on trends from having large screens outside galleries to the inauguration of iPads in the exhibition space. Why?! You don't need to have every piece of new technology in your space, but identify what kind of audience you want to attract into your space and see where their eyes are, what they're looking at and how they look at things. I'm not asking you to be a sell out and completely give into your audience, but most cultural spaces aren't even certain what kind of audiences they want to attract and this is where things get interesting; from a time where we rejoiced with surveys and questionnaires to figure out what kind of people were walking through those doors, the present digital public gives you the leverage to attract the kind of audiences you are most interested in. You become the center of attention deciding what kind of people you want to serve thereby avoiding any conflict altogether from audiences who might have unreasonable expectations. Those are not the people you're looking to attract and ultimately it does not matter. 

So who is the Curator of The Future? I think the more important question we need to ask ourselves is, where is the museum going? And the place that your museum/gallery is most likely to inhabit (digital space, virtual reality or the traditional White Cube even) is the kind of curator you need to be looking to train for the future. 

Thank you to The British Museum Team for having me at the conference, it was an experience I will treasure for a long time to come (into the future!). If you are a museum professional or a curator and are reading this, I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this post via a comment below. If you want to get in touch with me personally, please do drop me an email.

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