Starting with the Future in Mind

By Wyona Lynch-McWhite, LMN Board Member

The start of a new calendar year is also the time when we as Museum Administrators are thinking in a more focused way about our organization’s future. It is a time of planning and reflection as we begin new tax or fiscal years, launch new projects or welcome new board leadership. In this framework, it’s also a critical time to consider the research from AAM’s “Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures”—a white paper released by the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) in 2008. The paper details the crucial importance of paying close attention to oncoming trends both within organizations and within the communities we serve, if we are to be relevant to and engaged with our audiences in the future.

The paper looks at various different trends that will impact museums. Of particular interest to those within the Leadership and Management Network, the paper points out several critical issues that will affect the culture and shape of our organizations both internally and externally. Organized around four main themes, the paper is an important part of your leadership toolkit and should be read and shared.

Check In Questions for 2015

There are many points within this report that we can use and create “dashboards” as we check in on the progress of our individual museums. Relevant points in our focus areas of board development, human resources and overall fiscal health are woven throughout this research.

While it is not new information that our population is aging, it is startling to realize that the ratio of Americans over 65 will rise from 1:8 in 2008 to 1:5 by 2035. At the same time, there are greater disparities in wealth and a stronger focus on value, both of which will impact museum visitation and support. This means that we need to be both value-focused and accessible institutions. Are we paying attention to how our visitors interact with our buildings and grounds and are we implementing plans today that assist those with mobility challenges? Are we evaluating our wayfinding, accessibility and amenities that make a visit welcoming for a multigenerational audience?

Paying attention to the change in population is also critical as we think of our human resources functions. Those drawn to work in our field do so out of passion, as they are not drawn in by compensation, especially entry-level positions; however, most institutions require a bachelor’s degree for gift shop attendants and security staff (for example) while not providing advancement ladders and an organizational culture to help nurture in-house talent. The trends around the changing populations in older workers and the diversity of workers should be part on our thinking as we look to fill positions within our museums. This is also true as we look at volunteer opportunities including those within our governing boards.

Regarding audiences, it's rare for an institution to have an internal and external audience that truly reflects the communities that we claim to want to serve. As managers, as we look across our organization, are we also taking time to look out at the landscape of our communities to truly understand how they are changing? When we approve budgets for new marketing materials and interpretive signage, are we ensuring that they create a welcoming dialogue that takes into account cultural differences? And who is helping us evaluate those differences?

As the CFM report points out, with only 9% of current visitors to museums being from minority communities we have a lot of work to do if we are going to engage a minority majority population in 2034. Changes within the economic landscape and within those communities that might be interested in our institutions mean that museums must be seen as a valuable resource. The report speaks of a future where museum are seen as a positive resource commonly sharing knowledge and flattening the wealth gap. 

The research is clear that these trends will require museums to react either sooner—to their success, or later—to their detriment. This is an appropriate time to take a look at our museums to see how they can get ahead of these coming trends, to shape our organizations into ones that are ready and prepared for a future that is a certainty. Much like a strategic plan, this report from the Center for the Future of Museums points out critical strategies that we can use to move our institutions forward. As we make plans for a new year, a new budget cycle, and new operational initiatives, it is important to pull out this report, just like a strategic plan, on a regular basis and see if our efforts are aligned with the outcomes we wish to achieve.


Wyona Lynch-McWhite has been Executive Director of Fruitlands Museum since July 2012. Previously Lynch-McWhite served as Deputy and then Executive Director of Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, and Director and Chief Curator of the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum. She currently serves as a board member for the New England Museum Association (as of November 2013) and the National Basketry Organization.