Why I’m Coming: Elizabeth Merritt

ElizabethMerrittAfter a long career of conventional museum/association work (registration → collections management → project management → development of standards and best practices) I find myself challenged to become unconventional. As the Founding Director of AAM’s “Center for the Future of Museums,” it’s now my job to create not just a new project, but rather a new space for thinking about museums in new ways.

AAM staff dreamed up the idea of a “Center for the Future of Museums” to fulfill our board’s directive to “help museums be leaders in society.” Out of that broad mandate, we will focus initially on two goals: helping museums take a long-term view of the future and their place in it (beyond the usual 3-5 year institutional plan), and encouraging museums to help society deal with the challenges that future will bring.

We are still working out the activities that will help us achieve these goals. That said, we do know that all our activities must challenge museums to embrace radical, even disruptive creativity and innovation. To do so, we must disrupt AAM’s own culture. In the past, AAM has encouraged museums to succeed by following the conservative path of implementing standards and best practices. This is a good strategy for success in a stable environment. But the best forecasting information available about all aspects of our future—economic, political, cultural, ecological, technological—suggests we are entering a profoundly unstable age in which old strategies may not work. To survive and thrive in this would, our field will need not only conventionally good institutions, but unorthodox, visionary, rebellious museums as well. Only by supporting those who consciously and creatively choose to reject the standard approach and test for themselves what works and what does not can we cultivate the diversity of ideas and strategies that will enable our field to adapt to sudden and radical changes in the economic and social environment.

Hence my pilgrimage to Asilomar. The attendees are self-selected for creativity, even intellectual unruliness. I want to get to know them, learn what they are doing or plan to do, see what CFM can do to support their work. We also want to share what we learn about success and failure with the field as a whole. And I want to use this time away from D.C. to recharge my own creativity and bolster my courage to disrupt. I want to come away with completely new ideas about what CFM can do to support radical innovation, not just in exhibition design, but in all areas of museum operations.

Yours from the future!

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