TAM FAF Post 7: Public Release of "Looking for the Light at the End of the Tunnel" White Paper

Posted By: Ed Rodley TAM LABS,

Happy New Year, all! 

In keeping with the idea of using the beginnings of new years to do some reflection as well as some forecasting, I’d like to highlight some of the findings in our first white paper on Finding Alternative Futures 2: “Looking for the light at the end of the tunnel”. It gives a good snapshot of how 2021 looked for the FAF 2 cohort and points at some themes and issues that are likely to be important in 2022. 

What we heard from the FAF 2 participants

Since FAF2 is still in full swing, these data provide a snapshot, rather than an overview of where Texas museums find themselves. Given how unique 2021 was, it’s helpful to have this snapshot, and it provides insights into what the major issues in 2022 might be. 

  • Digital transformation isn’t really “digital”. It’s about how we work together.
  • It seems counterintuitive in the midst of a pandemic, but strategy and goal setting are more important than ever. 
  • Understanding online audiences and how they differ from onsite ones is critical. 
  • Though the pandemic has caused upset for the whole sector, small organizations continue to struggle the most. 

Download the whole white paper HERE

How this looks against the larger 2021 picture

Two year-end reports tried to distill what was happening globally for (mainly art) museums that resonate with what we’ve been experiencing in Texas. Jing Commerce and Culture hosted a webinar at the end of 2021 with three well-known entrepreneurs in the digital cultural space,  “The Year in Digital Innovations: From NFTs to Creative Tech” and their three main issues they identified in that conversation were cultivating digital sustainability, driving NFT engagement, and increasing accessibility of digital offerings. I’m not going to touch NFTs with a ten-foot pole in these posts, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. But if you take the other two, cultivating sustainability and increasing accessibility aren’t really digital issues. They're organizational culture and strategy issues. How we fund our efforts in a hybrid 2022 is a huge issue. As the latest CultureTrack report [LINK] pointed out in some detail, American audiences are consuming fewer museum digital offerings than they were at the start of the pandemic, and their willingness to pay for them also seems to be on the wane, compared to other kinds of digital content like artist performances. Likewise, successfully increasing our audiences’ ability to find and use the digital content museums are creating will require an ongoing commitment to understanding the differing needs of online audiences versus physical ones. 

Artnet also produced a look back on the major themes of 2021in the art world [LINK] which have some interesting overlap. Their list of issues ranged from the increasing unionization of the museum workforce to the ongoing reckonings over museums’ proper role in society. And, yes, NFTs. But I want to call out one of their themes; the immersive craze. 

2021 could be called the year of immersive Van Gogh experiences. There were over 40 installations in the US, including two in Houston alone. And rather than wade into the art world debate about whether this was a good or bad thing, an “authentic” or derivative aesthetic experience, I’d like to point out a fact that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention thus far. And that is that the part of the immersive experience that seems to be driving attendance isn’t solely the “immersive” part. Otherwise, I’d expect to see “Immersive Joe Smith” or “Immersive Jane Doe” exhibitions as well. The fact that all of these competitor experiences are using A-List, single-name stars of the Western art canon tells us that people are looking for rewarding cultural experiences and deciding that museums aren’t the place to find them. This phenomenon is one that our company has been tracking for a while. We hosted a Zoom conversation earlier in 2021 with a diverse group of museum professionals to explore immersive experiences and museum experiences. They show no sign of going away, so expect 2022 to also be the year of immersives. Also, expect to see more museums do what the Cleveland Museum of Art has done with their “Revealing Krishna” exhibition and marry immersion with more traditional museum displays. 

What this means for 2022

What does all this portend for 2022 and all its uncertainty? Luckily for us, there are already some good reports out there that point to potential themes in 2022. Another Jing Commerce and Culture article try to pick out what is likely phenomena museums will have to contend with in 2022. [LINK]. 

Among their predictions are a steadily increasing amount of attention being given to the idea of “metaverses” as new frontiers, in the wake of Facebook’s rebranding of itself as Meta, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s much-maligned video explainer [LINK] on Meta vision for the metaverse. Personally, I think it’ll be years before the museum needs to pay serious attention to it, but expect to see it in the news often. They also expect the fascination with immersion to continue and possibly accelerate as more and more organizations try to capitalize on people's desire to be out in public safely, doing cultural things. They provide a nice list of museum examples as well.

Virtual heritage tours, often with immersive elements, seem to be enjoying new-found popularity among museums, as the pandemic continues to curtail people’s ability to travel. They also are seen as providing not only a visitor-facing experience but also contributing to the preservation needs of heritage sites, as digital snapshots of these fragile resources.

The last, and possibly most relevant theme for folks following FAF 2 is the imminent opening of a number of new museums globally in 2022, and the different organizational structures they are creating. One of the biggest impediments to changing the way we work is overcoming the inertia of “this is how we’ve always done things.” These brand-new entities, with no track records or traditions, are being built from the ground up to respond to the hybrid reality of the 21st century. Expect to see interesting choices on what jobs their employees have, and how they are organized to do museum work!

Lastly, I want to leave you with some points to consider, courtesy of Elizabeth Merritt at AAM. She’s written the first of a three-part forecast for museums in 2022 [LINK] that gives a good example of how to conduct strategic planning in deeply uncertain times and reinforces the idea that our FAF 2 participants voiced that now, more than ever, having a sense of where your organization trying to go is vitally important.

Among her items for consideration:

  • How would another year of limited travel and tourism impact your organization? How might you capitalize on a rise in “staycations” or a desire for less crowded destinations?
  • In 2022, what will your organization’s policy be regarding vaccination and masking for staff and visitors? What decisions (by parent organizations, or local, state, or federal government) may constrain your choices?
  • How can your organization serve the demand for virtual experiences in 2022? Can you build income around digital products and services sufficient to sustain your staff for another lean year? How can you foster a sense of safety around in-person visitation, for example, by providing exclusive times to groups?
  • How might your museum support teachers, parents, and students navigating another year of disrupted learning? Can you offer programs that help fill the time freed up by half-days and early closures? Can you offer space and staff support for students who need quiet spaces and good connectivity for successful remote learning?
  • How might your organization support staff, and reduce turnover, in the third year of pandemic stress? Are you monitoring the long-term impact of the crisis on staff at all levels, and how can you mitigate that impact through your policies, procedures, wages, and benefits? How will a shift to remote work affect your local community and its economy?

That’s all for now, folks! All our best wishes for 2022 being a happy, healthy, productive year for you and your museum. And onward to TAM 2022!