Brave New World: Exploring the Future of Museums

In the post-millennial age, does the traditional role of a museum still hold? New York City's Museum of Arts and Design dives into what a museum could become in its new exhibition

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Detail of 'Museum as Manufacturer, 2013' by Keetra Dean Dixon and JK Keller at the "After the Museum: The Home Front 2013" press preview at Museum of Art and Design on March 12, 2013 in New York City.

The assembly line looks stalled—its cogs jammed, maybe, or someone has inadvertently unplugged it. Yet the industrial machine hums softly, and one of the miniature objects drops into a collection box at the end of the line. The conveyer belt does move: one inch every 50 seconds.

The 3D printer at the start of the line works away, churning out more objects at roughly the same pace. Older objects, removed from the box earlier, hang from a makeshift mobile just above the assembly line.

“It’s not a realistic platform for a museum,” designer Keetra Dean Dixon concedes of the above scenario. Rather, she and her collaborator-husband, JK Keller, intended their “Museum As Manufacturer” installation to probe the possibilities of what a museum could become.

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Their work is just one of the pieces on display at “After the Museum”, an exhibition and platform for more than 30 designers to propose what will happen to museums in the future. Opened March 12 in New York City, it’s the third iteration of the Museum of Arts and Design’s annual series on American design, and the first physical exhibit for the program. Over the course of its three-month run, lectures, workshops, discussions and interactive performances will explore the idea of museums and their evolution. Jake Yuzna, MAD’s manager of public programs, says the exhibition doesn’t view “after” as a complete end, but a place to brainstorm possibilities for museums.

“What can they be, and what should they be? We’re in the new millennium,” Yuzna says. “This exhibit really looks to say, ‘Well, what should they shift to? What does it make sense to do? Is there another way? Do we need galleries anymore?’ In a big way, it’s exploring that question.”

With new technology comes changes in the museum platform. Inspired by the transformative manufacturing process of 3D printing, Dixon and Keller’s installation pushes the limits of what exactly the museum’s role is. They’ve started with open-source digital files that they say represent how disruptive the technology is. That is, how 3D printing has unexpectedly changed the marketplace—among the objects produced in the installation are adapter parts that allow competitor children’s toys to work together, a disruptive product in the kids’ toy scene.

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“The 3D printer could very easily become a tool within the museum that’s used often,” Dixon says. “I don’t know how far down the line that is, but I think that contending with the medium and the technology is inevitable in the museum context.”

Sharing museum collections online has also become inevitable, even if it isn’t fully embraced by the institutions themselves. “Permanent Loan,” an installation by the New York design studio Project Projects, features 2 and 3D monochrome digital reproductions of artwork hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate in London, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and others. It’s an investigation into the possibility of museums making their collections open online, says Project Projects co-founder and principal Prem Krishnamurthy.

“Given the way in which we’re used to the proliferation of images, and we no longer think about images and works as being necessarily cited in a specific place, what does that do to their reception?” he says. “How does it open up certain possibilities for juxtaposition between things that may not have been possible earlier?”

In what Krishnamurthy deems an “idealized collection,” a print of Richard Hamilton’s “Palindrome,” from London’s Tate, shares a space with Katharina Fritsch’s “Pistole,” which is owned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “By the smart use of materials and disseminating them online, you can speak to an academic audience and give them the advantage of looking at things in greater detail, and also in making connections between different works, which would have been much more laborious to do without the automated systems that exist,” Krishnamurthy says. “It’s not just about reaching more people, it’s about deepening people’s relationship to them.”

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To push those relationships further, “After the Museum” engages visitors in a dialogue, inviting them to explore that central question along with the designers on display. “Guestbook,” the  brainchild of design collective Other Means, will publish everything visitors write in the guest ledger in the final exhibition catalog, raw and unedited. This, along with the exhibit’s events, online components and activities, carve a wider niche for what a museum can be.

Gideon D’Arcangelo, the vice president of creative strategy for experience design firm ESI Design, says this social focus will be how museums stay relevant. Rather than working behind the scenes to put on a show for the public, museums are becoming more like ecosystems that involve the public, the administrators, the curators and the experts creating the experience together. Going to a museum is no longer just about seeing the artifacts.

“It’s really about using the fact that a bunch of people are in a shared space together to the advantage of getting them to connect with each other,” D’Arcangelo says. “That’s the thing you can’t get online.”

Even if the museum doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge, it will be where the experience is. While Dixon and Keller’s 3D printing project is starting with pre-selected digital files, anyone can submit 3D files for production in the installation. In the end, the designers hope that the installation will evolve into solely objects submitted by visitors. It’s this interaction—this democratization of experience—that may very well keep museums a cultural mainstay long after the objects themselves are forgotten.

“After the Museum: The Home Front 2013” runs at the Museum of Arts and Design from March 12 – June 9. 

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