Why Talking About The Future of Museums May Be Holding Museums Back

Marketoonist- Risks

What if we took some of the time that we spend patting ourselves on the back for thinking about “the future” and use it to better adapt to the world we are living in right now?

Before I jump in, I need to come clean and admit that I’m not innocent here. I’ve been (proudly) called a futurist for visitor-serving organizations and I even say that, for a living, I help “future-proof” nonprofit organizations. Some of my favorite resources and those that I believe to be the most thoughtful focus on “the future” (like the Center for The Future of Museum’s blog – which is worth checking out for its valuable thought-fuel). But here’s the thing:

While those ideas shared by our industry’s most engaging thought leaders and go-to resources may be “future-facing” (as in, they are sure to increase in relevance in the future) they are not actually about the future. Yes, it is a matter of language that is confusing things. Using the word “future” when we are talking about the “present” may be harmful to organizations because of what the word “future” means. Many resources focusing on “the future” are actually communicating about emerging trends that are happening right now…and when we call them “the future” we do our organizations a grave disservice.

Here’s why:

1) Things that get characterized as “the future” within the museum industry generally are not about the future at all

Check this out: Embracing millennials, mastering community management on social media, opening authority, heightening engagement with onsite technologies, breaking down ivory towers with shifts from prescription to participation, engaging more diverse audiences, utilizing mobile platforms, understanding the role of “digital,” breaking down organizational silos…These are things that we frequently discuss as if they are part of the future. But they aren’t. In fact, if your organization hasn’t already had deep discussions about these issues and begun evolving and deploying new strategies at this point, then you may arguably be too late in responding to forces challenging our sector today.


2) Calling it “the future” excuses putting off issues which are actually immediate needs for organizational survival

What if we called these things “The Right Now?” Would it be easier to get leadership to allocate resources to social media endeavors or deploy creative ways to grow stakeholder affinity by highlighting participation and personalization?  Are we excusing the poor transition from planning to action by deferring most investments to “The Future?”

Basically, we’ve created a beat-around-the-bush way of talking about hard things that separates successful and unsuccessful organizations. For many less successful organizations struggling to find their footing in our rapidly evolving times, their go-to euphemistic solution for “immediate and difficult” seems to be “worth thinking about in the future.” When we call it “the future,” we excuse ourselves from thinking about these issues right now (which is exactly when we should be considering if not fully deploying them).

Contrast this deferment strategy with those of more successful organizations who invariably and reliably “beat the market to the spot.”  It isn’t pure chance and serendipity that underpins successful engagement strategies – these are the product of ample foresight, planning, investment and action…all of it done many yesterdays ago!


3) The future implies uncertainty but trend data is not uncertain

Moreover, common wisdom supports that “the future” is uncertain.  “We cannot tell the future.” Admittedly, some sources that aim to talk about the future truly attempt to open folks’ brains to a distant time period. However, much of what is shared by those we call “futurists” is not necessarily uncertain. In fact (and especially when it comes to trends in data), we’re not guessing.  I’ve sat in on a few meetings within organizations in which trends and actual data are taken and then presented as “the future” or within the conversation of “things to discuss in the future.” Wait. What?

Certainly, new opportunities evolve and trends may ebb with shifting market sentiments…but why would an organization choose uncertainty over something that is known right now?


4) We may not be paying enough time and attention to right now

I don’t think that referring to “right now trends” as “the future” would be as potentially damaging to organizations if we spent enough time being more strategic and thoughtful about “right now trends” in general.  Many organizations seem to be always playing catch-up with the present.  If organizations are struggling to keep up with the present, how will they ever be adequately prepared for the future?


5) Talking about “the future” sometimes provides a false sense of innovation that may simply be vanity

To be certain, we all need “wins” – especially in nonprofit organizations where burnout is frequent and market perceptions are quickly changing. The need for evolution is constant and the want for a moment’s rest may be justified. That said, it seems as though talking about “the future” (which, as we’ve covered, is actually upon us) is often simply providing the opportunity for organizations to pat themselves on the back for “considering” movement instead of actually moving. To have the perceived luxury of being able to think about the future may give some leaders a false sense of security that they aren’t, in fact, constantly trying to keep up with the present.


Talking about “the future” seems to mean that you are talking about something that is – yes – perhaps cutting edge, but also uncertain, not urgent, not immediate, and somehow a type of creative brainstorming endeavor. While certainly brainstorming about the actual future may be beneficial (there are some great minds in the museum industry that do this!), it may be wise for organizations to realize that most of what we call “the future” is a too-nice way of reminding organizations that the world is turning as we speak and you may already be a laggard organization.

Think about your favorite museum or nonprofit thinker. My guess is that you consider that person to be a kind of futurist, but really, you may find that they are interesting to you because they are actually a “right-now-ist.” They provide ideas, thoughts, and innovative solutions about challenges that are currently facing your organization.

This is all a long way of saying something incredibly simple, but astoundingly true: The future is now.  Let’s start treating it that way.


A quick aside: Speaking of “the future is now,” I’ll be conducting a free webinar with Blackbaud tomorrow (August 14) at 1pm Eastern entitled “Get Strategic: How to Connect With Members in a Digital Age.” You can sign up here!

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter  

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

5 Responses to Why Talking About The Future of Museums May Be Holding Museums Back

  1. Katie Campbell

    Insightful, yet isn’t this merely semantics? Strategy or strategic thinking implies future results. So if the discussion HAS taken place on what are arguably “right now” issues, how are “future strategies” discussed?

    • colleendilen

      Yes, I think it is absolutely a matter of language and an industry habit of framing the present as “the future.” Indeed, discussing “right now” issues (and understanding that they are “right now” issues) helps ensure future solvency. I think the risk of calling the present “the future” in industry dialogue and larger strategy discussions is that the implication of the word “future” is that these present issues may be less certain or less immediate than they actually are.

      I think “future strategies” are certainly important to discuss broadly (and individual organizations may be on different “future”continuums depending on what an individual organization is doing at a given moment). The differentiation is that we are clear that we are talking about the future as opposed to the present.

  2. Dean Krimmel

    Language IS important in shaping people’s thinking and attitude. Sadly, the leadership of many of the organizations I’ve worked with–local historical societies & museums, historic sites–don’t (or can’t) think in strategic terms. About the present or the future. They simply don’t know what to do with current data, past data, trend data, you name it. Future talk often takes the form of an elaborate “to do” list, still one of the best ways to avoid dealing with current issues. A good post and healthy reminder to think about the meaning and impact of the language we use.

  3. Franklin Vagnone

    “The golden age is now” & “The emperor has no clothes!”. I say these phrases all the time when we speak about THE ANARCHIST GUIDE TO HISTORIC HOUSE MUSEUMS. As museum professionals I believe we should be trying things and being OK with failure – Then, start over and try things again differently. For house museums at least, there is not much time to change an institutional trajectory. I agree that when we hear of trends – what we really are saying is that this type of issue is happening right now and you have to respond now – not later. The future of these sites goes to the most flexible and creative. @franklinvagnone

  4. Elizabeth Merritt

    Hi Colleen, thanks for wading into an important issue. As you might imagine, I have a lot of opinions on the promise & perils of thinking about the future–I’ll condense a few of them here.

    The biggest challenge, I think, is finding the right timeframe in which to think about the future, which turns out to be a tricky exercise in psychology. If I invite people to think 5-10 years out, they tend to actually talk about today. BUT–that’s a good way of surfacing stuff they should be dealing with, but are not yet. If I invite them to think 25 or 30 years out, they tend to operate in what is, in truth , a ten year time horizon, which is a great zone for strategic planning. If the challenges they are grappling with (changes in organizational culture, for example), are really stressful, giving them a 50 year time frame (way too long for practical forecasting) can make them relax and able to play with scary ideas.


Add a Comment