The digital world and the sharing economy present serious challenges—and even greater opportunities—for the traditional museum

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Over the last two decades, a number of new museums and museum additions have arisen across the U.S., even as some institutions have laid off staff for lack of operating funds, as the art critic Ben Davis noted in a recent essay in the New York Times (“How the Rich Are Hurting the Museums They Fund,” July 22, 2016). But constructing new buildings in the face of operating deficits is not the biggest challenge museums face. With so many images of art and so much information about it now available online, people no longer have to go to a museum to see or learn about the major works in a collection.

Museums are not alone in this challenge. Universities face the same dilemma: Some students have started to ask why they should go to class to hear a professor lecture about facts that they can get more rapidly and maybe even more accurately on their phones. For museums and universities, the digital environment—and the sharing, collaborative, or on-demand economy that has grown out of it—raises important questions about the role of buildings, the purpose of institutions, and their relationship to the increasingly information-overloaded people they serve.

In theory, museums seem perfectly suited to an economy in which people increasingly seek access instead of ownership, social space rather than private space, and experiences over things. By providing spaces that are open to the public and often freely accessible, these institutions embody the “third place” (as the Minnesota-educated sociologist Ray Oldenburg called it in his book The Great Good Place), offering informal gathering space often not available on public or private property.

But this new economy also suggests that museums can no longer continue to operate as they have. In their book Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy—And How to Make Them Work for You, historian Geoffrey Parker, economist Marshall Van Alstyne, and entrepreneur Sangeet Paul Choudary argue that the industries and institutions most vulnerable to digital disruption are information-intensive, with relatively few gatekeepers, and an asymmetry of information between experts and the general public.

Those traits, of course, characterize museums. And so, while museums appear to be solid, stable, and eternal with their impressive buildings, lovely landscapes, and valuable objects, they are hardly that. If anything, beautiful buildings can comfort these organizations into complacency, delaying their response to a rapidly changing technological, social, and economic context that has shifted the ground beneath them.

Parker, Van Alstyne, and Choudary argue that gatekeeping institutions and information-intensive industries will have to behave more like platforms if they hope to survive. Platforms like Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb succeed because they link people, eliminating intermediaries, easing access, and allowing individuals to customize their experiences. Some museums have heard that message and have begun to change.

At the newly expanded Cleveland Museum of Art, designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, a 40-foot-long touch-screen wall shows digital images of all 4,000-plus objects on display, enabling visitors to pick what they want to see, download their favorite images to a museum-provided digital device, and enjoy a custom tour through the galleries to see their selections. The museum offers them a customizable experience. Visitors can also follow the tours of others, enabling museum patrons to become producers of ideas in an era in which the wisdom of crowds has become as valued as the judgment of experts.

The Cleveland example also shows how the museum-as-platform can help us reimagine the physical museum. Viñoly’s addition provides a vast public space surrounded by galleries—a place for socialization and conversation prompted by the art around it. Like so many aspects of the new economy that has flipped the old one on its head, this design suggests that the art is not an end in itself but a means to the insights and interactions of museumgoers, museum staff, and the communities in which they reside.

As we have seen in everything from our politics to our pop culture, skepticism toward elites and the questioning of expertise have become increasingly widespread as we enter an era of “the cult of the amateur,” as the critic Andrew Keen has called it. Museums arose out of a previous era of amateurism, as did colleges and universities, before professional credentials or specialized degree programs existed, and our institutions would do well to revisit that history and to view it not with a condescending eye but as a guide to where we may go. Look at how much the Cleveland Museum of Art’s digital wall, for example, recalls the way early museums displayed almost every item they owned, stacked high on their walls.

The museum as a platform has implications for the role of art and artifacts in contemporary life. In the 20th century, the “age of mechanical reproduction,” as the German critic Walter Benjamin described it, we could mass-produce images and make them widely available in print. As a result, the artwork itself became a kind of fetish item, with people going to museums to see “the real thing,” having seen endless reproductions of it beforehand. And that, in turn, led to the museum as we have known it for much of the last century, with the most treasured items in a collection displayed largely at eye level and with enough separation from each other that the visitor could admire and study them without distraction.

That way of organizing museums and displaying work has become so pervasive that we have come to think it as normal—as what a museum should look like. But in the 21st century that may change dramatically, as we have already seen in the interactive technologies that have begun to make their way into many museums. In our current age of digital reproduction, when we can download all of the visual and textual information we could ever want about a work of art or historically significant artifact, the item itself matters less than the networks within which it exists and the evaluation of it not just by experts but also by one’s peers.

This suggests that a visit to the museum may take many different forms in the future. It might not involve physically going to the museum at all, recalling André Malraux’s 1952 polemic calling for a “Musée Imaginaire,” or museum without walls. His idea of a virtual museum already exists: Anyone with a Wi-Fi-connected digital device can visit art and artifacts of almost every kind whenever and wherever they want. The museum’s role in this case entails more than just housing those works; it also involves curating and connecting them in the most illuminating ways, whether they are seen in person or on a screen.

In that light, the more museums keep constructing large buildings in the face of staff layoffs, the more 20th century they remain—and the more they may hamper their ability to compete in the 21st century. The association of a museum with its building can lull an institution into thinking it can avoid the cultural transformation happening all around us. At a time in which our phones give us access to as much information as existed in the largest libraries in the world just a couple of decades ago, the 21st-century museum will likely demand fewer walls—and probably more modest museum buildings—with more staff able to attract and interact more effectively with virtual visitors.

For smaller museums, their past disadvantage of having smaller budgets, less space, and fewer items in their collection can become an advantage in a future in which access rather than ownership becomes ever more important. Just as Airbnb has become the world’s largest hotelier without owning any real estate and Uber one of the largest ride-sharing companies without owning any vehicles, so too can museums now accomplish their mission without owning any artifacts or works of art. In the 21st century, the greatest value lies in linking people and helping them meet their needs and enrich their experiences. Those museums that understand that, regardless of their size, will thrive.

The role of the museum professional will also likely change from one of delivering information and conveying knowledge to one of guiding the learning of others and learning from them in turn. And yet, for all of the changes that the new economy will spawn, it also brings us back to some of the oldest and most basic roles of these institutions. Museums have long played a critically important role in stimulating new ideas and in prompting people to see themselves and their world differently, and if museums stay focused on that purpose, they can free themselves from how their predecessors carried out that mission. Placing works on the wall or in vitrines on the floor is just one of many ways to stimulate new ideas and prompt reflection, and successful museums will use all of the means available to them to do this in the future.

Our ancestors established such institutions to expose more people to the products of human imagination and understanding—and perhaps inspire them to make their own contributions to the store of human accomplishment (or at least see their own lives more expansively). That institutional role has not changed, even as the way in which people access images or information has. So how do we create a new kind of museum that complements rather than competes with the virtual “museums” most of us carry around with us in our pockets?

One answer lies in Marshall McLuhan’s useful observation, in Understanding Media (1964), that every new technology turns the old one into an art form—an insight that might help us think differently about the future of the museum in the age of digital reproduction. While museums preserve artworks and artifacts, in the digital age they might themselves become an art form, offering experiences not available through any other means. What might that look like? As with art itself, these institutions must ensure that people will continually return to the museum to experience something new.

A weakness in the digital environment lies in its continually trying to assess what we like and to connect us to more of the same. Museums might compensate for that weakness by moving away from geographically or thematically focused exhibitions—formats that connect us to more of the same—and toward the unexpected juxtaposition of apparently unrelated works within a collection. Asking the visitor to find the commonalities and differences among pieces, with enough background information to make the exercise fruitful and not frustrating, could be another point of departure for curatorial work.

While the practice of presenting seemingly random works may sound irrational, it would do what no digital environment can, which is to help visitors make creative connections among things and co-curate the experience they have in a museum on a continual basis. This idea is especially important in a century in which innovation and entrepreneurship have become key to social and economic vitality; by encouraging new habits of mind, museums can assume a new social role—that of stimulating the kind of thinking that will help us adjust to the rapid economic, environmental, and demographic changes we face.

Put differently, while we will no doubt continue to visit museums for the aesthetic and historical pleasures they offer, we may increasingly go to them to see their art and artifacts as representations of creative leaps and as the expressions of the lateral thinking, the unexpected interpretation, and the playful reimagination of reality that remain a vital part of 21st-century life.

Museums will be as important in the future as they have been in the past if they remain open to rethinking themselves and to exploring the opportunities that the 21st century has to offer. If they do, they will help all of us adapt to the very different world in which we live—not to fear it but to embrace it as one of the greatest creative eras in human history.


This article is adapted from a keynote talk given at the Association of Midwest Museums’ recent “Innovation, Become the Unexpected” conference in Minneapolis.