Museums as drivers for change – new professions, new economy

During the past two decades the world has changed a lot, and so have museums. Therefore, it’s more than essential to discuss their potential from the point of view of cultural industries and new ways to work.

Politics. Two decades ago we didn’t worry so much about the polarisation of values, politicians interfering with culture, or journalists targeting organisations and even individuals. We didn’t see Brexit or Donald Trump coming.

Economics. We didn’t have bitcoins or banks losing their credibility overnight. We didn’t even have euros. Museums were doing mostly fine thanks to subsidies. Sponsoring was taking its first baby steps.

Society. We kept the doors open to visitors with no special target groups. Society’s problems were not exactly seen as the greatest challenges of museums. Illiterate teenagers were not on the top ten list of concerns in the developed countries, and the information gap was not a class divider, now it is.

Technology. One can ask how much we talked about the potential of artificial intelligence for museums – in a world where we had just created websites and were thinking about including some images in the pages, too. Or how much did we think about robots taking over some jobs, even at the warehouses?

Law. In terms of the legal environment, copyrights became one of the most important topics. The images needed to be published on the internet, and soon after that we began with digitalisation, making plans for the long-term preservation of digital images as well as spreading them more and more.

Environment. Climate change was affecting relatively little the daily routines of museums. No one thought about solar panels, environment certificates or compensating the air traffic. The refugees were not on the move, either.

Even this short run through of some of the themes illustrates what has happened. The world has changed a lot, and museums have become much wider, bigger, deeper and versatile organisations. They have changed from the art historians’ hubs to teams that require multiple competencies.

This has affected our understanding of the different expertise we need within the museum organisations. We need political understanding and risk analysts; controllers, fundraisers, legal advisors, marketing and brand specialists; educators, designers, digital curators and wizards in technology. We need professional leaders. Most importantly, we need lots of knowledge in order to make strategic decisions about how to respond to today’s needs.

Two decades ago we didn’t foresee almost any of this coming.

Therefore, it’s only fair to ask what the new professions are and what is the new economy for museums in the future. What are the signals we should be aware of?

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I’ll discuss the differences from mainly two perspectives: economy and development of our profession.

First some notions regarding economy. Museums are at the heart of the culture industry, creating more new jobs than any other area from mining to ship building, for instance.

Museums need to master several fields from the traditional core competencies… that is art history, storage of the collections, conservation and research… to market analysis, business models and building of the brands.

Museums matter to the cities, regions and countries that benefit from the positive image built. In Sweden alone, people spent 63 million nights in hotels last year, and 14 million of those were in Stockholm.

In London, the biggest museums draw millions of visitors every year. The British Museum scored 5.9 million visits last year, the Tate Modern 5.7 and the National Gallery 5.2 million. If museums were open every day of the year, this would make around 16 000 visits per day. And the same applies all over the world.

Museums contribute to the greater economy by providing meaningful services to the visitors. Every visitor tends to leave approximately 150-250 euros behind per day of stay in the city.

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What museums do matters to billions of people worldwide. What we do makes people happier. That’s a great driver for our work: being relevant and knowing the purpose.

I was thinking about this when reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit jobs, that was published earlier this year. The main point of the book is that the majority of people does not find purpose in their work. According to Graeber, over half of society work is pointless. This becomes psychologically destructive when the value of work doesn’t correspond with self-worth. The good news is that museums don’t have this problem. We know exactly why we work.

On the grander scale, it’s about the economic impact of the culture industry to the flourishing of the cities. This can be measured in numbers.

When the Nationalmuseum in Sweden was reopened on October 13th this year, after 5 years of renovation, the good will, positive publicity and worldwide recognition brought Stockholm to the limelight. Audience is pouring in, which means 5000-6000 visitors every day. Nearly 40 000 unique experiences every week.

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Museums of today are more proactive, more dynamic and more courageous than ever before. They’ve changed from monolithic institutions to masters of several plays. They have changed from “keepers” to “doers”.

This means that our professional landscape has changed from its core. I have seen the change and been part of that. I’ve seen how some esteemed museum professionals think that they are better than the others due to the content of their job, a fancy title or perhaps the number of years in the job – and the newcomers must wait for recognition. During the old days, this might have been a valid way to lift one’s own tail. But it’s not anymore.

Nowadays, one is exactly as good as their capacity to respect other professionals in their jobs. Museums need team players, thinkers, philosophers, connoisseurs. They need brain, planning and execution. They need people who are curious about the present day and who will build the future together, helping each other.

I tend to talk about the clouds of competencies: in the future, we should develop teams according to the actual needs and invest in the best researchers. We should introduce entrepreneurship to the museum world, and test alternative ways to produce exhibitions. We should also rethink our way to understand ownership in order to develop dynamic collections.

I also wish to flag the importance of developing working, social and emotional skills. The best places to work are the ones that invest in the wellbeing of people… the places where everyone is responsible for their contribution to the work environment.

We can’t say yet how jobs will change in the future. What we know for sure is that we’ll need all the skills and capacity in order to make better museums for the people.

Even if the work will change, our need to encounter the authentic and original objects doesn’t change. Therefore, also in the future, we’ll need platforms for these genuine encounters.

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The text is a shortened version of Susanna Pettersson’s keynote lecture at the European Registrars’ conference in London on November 19th, 2018. The theme of the conference was Evolve. Refresh. Collaborate.