Museum Challenges for 2019

Happy New Year, all! I’m writing a book…

After writing my last post of 2018 on the EMOTIVE workshop I attended in Athens, I fell headlong into one of those existential crises where I realized that I was in the grip of a prolonged flow experience. All these seemingly disparate events I’d been attending on storytelling, gaming, immersion, and emotion were all interconnected, and I had to somehow tease out what those connections were. So, it seems I’m writing a book. Stay tuned for more, but I’ve said it publicly now. No backsies!

After that revelation, I spent a good part of December calling and emailing critical friends to put this harebrained idea to the test, and nobody dissuaded me. Several of you were downright encouraging, so it became a more substantial idea, and started to develop a plan, and timeline, and all the other accoutrements of an actual project. Then I got sick right before Christmas, stayed sick through New Year’s Eve, and started the New Year kinda fuzzy-headed and feeling like I’d lost all momentum. So I tweeted a question on January 1st.

The original #museumchallenges tweet

I will confess I launched this Tweet into the world with little forethought other than “I really need to start ground truthing my assumptions about this book. I’ve got a bunch of challenges I want to talk about, but what does the audience think are the important challenges?”

Twitter then got busy. In the next couple of days, it generated about 100 different replies, and more affirmations and retweets. I guess it’s a live issue. I include a few of my favorites, in no particular order, just to give you a sense of the breadth of responses.

Goldfish syndrome! So good!
Outdated org structures? Us?
Ah, yes. The malaise… “Leadership headwind” is a phrase I’m stealing, too.
The ever elusive sense of “balance”

If you’re at all interested, I’d recommend you dig through the threads. The replies and subtweeting were interesting, and if nothing else, will give you suggestions for other people worth following. Anyway, after scraping all the tweets and exporting them, I started trying to code the responses. Interestingly, they broke down into categories pretty quickly. Here’s my (admittedly unscientific and idiosyncratic) breakdown.


  • Climate change,
  • Digital as opportunity and threat,
  • Fighting the malaise,
  • Finding balance,
  • Lack of attention to the visitor experience,
  • The larger society’s impact,
  • Organizational structure issues,
  • Reinventing the wheel,
  • Relevance,
  • Systems Thinking,
  • Vision and Teamwork

Free pro tip: Wait until the replies actually stop before you start exporting and coding. You’ll save yourself from having to start over when more replies come in.

I generated a word cloud for the visual thinkers who don’t want to read through ~100 tweets and subtweets.

Word cloud of responses to my tweet. Color coded words appeared six times or more

If I had to sum up the responses in a single statement, it would seem that you think the challenges museums face in 2019 are the following:

In a world where the global context includes existential threats like climate change and large scale social unrest, it can be a real struggle to fight the malaise and find balance, especially in a field that offers low pay for most, expects overwork to be the norm, and creates scarcity of time and resources. Exacerbating that, museum organizational culture is conservative and ill-suited to the needs and wants of audiences and employees in the current century.

We are our own worst enemies some times, and continually reinvent the wheel and perpetuate ways of doing our work that are destructive to staff and creativity. Methods and models exist in the world that could be inspirations for new ways of being a museum, but they’ll require vision and systems thinking.

Seems like a pretty tall order for 2019. Thoughts?

P.S. For those of you who want to dig into the details, I put all the tweets I scraped and grouped into a Google doc here.


  1. I replied to your original Twitter thread, Ed, but I thought I would expand on that thought here. I’ve been thinking about how the “growth at all costs” mentality from the business world has seeped into non-profit thinking. In museums, this thinking has manifested itself in a few obvious ways: adding new wings to buildings that are already just fine, adding more temporary exhibitions to calendars that are already crowded, and to acquiring more blue-chip works by artists that have little to do with the communities in which those museums reside. I feel that this “we’ve got to do more!” mentality is at least a root cause (if not necessarily _the_ root cause) of so much of the burnout and malaise that others identified in your thread.

    The constant scope creep of “we’ve got to do more!” increases the pressure on staff in obvious ways (exhibitions personnel, curators, registrars, etc. are now redlining the system at all times), but in less obvious ones, too. When there’s little organic push from your community to do these things, the push has to be generated artificially. And that puts enormous pressure on museum marketing and social media efforts (not to mention special events departments, who increasingly bear much of the burden of making a museum “look cool” to The Young People Out There).

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  2. Very interesting post, thank you very much. I am young professional working in the museum industry and I had issues I couldn’t put words on. You just named them. As you say: ‘Methods and models exist in the world that could be inspirations for new ways of being a museum, but they’ll require vision and systems thinking.’ It is an exciting challenge. I believe museums could be inspired by the start-up culture to allow the employees to be more free in their day-to-day activity. Meaning: they get a feel of responsibility over what they are in charge of instead of being sucked-up in the structure of the institution. Just an idea.

    Thank you for your post!


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  3. A surfeit of virtues. There are so many demands for what an exhibit ought to be or do, or how it should be made, that they can paralyze us. Many of these demands seem virtuous in isolation, but some are in conflict with others, and it is impossible to do all of them at once and end up with an exhibit worth visiting. But we have no overarching principle for prioritizing among them, and thus we become so dedicated to being virtuous that we forget how to be good.

    Jay Rounds

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  4. “A surfeit of virtues”? I’m totally stealing that for the title of my first novel, Jay!

    But seriously, I’ve lived through the paralysis you describe, and that idea of trying to be all things to all people really resonates.

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  5. Thanks, Ed! I’ll buy your novel, just on the basis of the intriguing title.
    I’m on board with Koven’s comment about “constant scope creep” and your gloss of that as endlessly adding but never subtracting. That’s the Type One of the “surfeit of virtues.” The question here is pretty straightforward, even if it’s not so obvious how to answer it: How many good ideas does it take to make a bad idea?

    Faced with a new demand that seems inherently virtuous, and operating in an environment where “inclusion” seems a master virtue, The Museum Practitioner Who Can’t Say No adds one more item to his checklist of requirements for a Virtuous Exhibition. Why can’t we say no? Perhaps we all need to go back and read Durkheim’s book The Division of Labor in Society. He wrote that small-scale, traditional agricultural or hunter/gatherer societies are held together by “mechanical solidarity,” in which people are all doing pretty much the same thing. More complex modern societies are instead held together by “organic solidarity,” in which people are interdependent because everyone is doing different things that have to be coordinated to make the whole thing work. The analogy is to the biological body, in which each organ has a distinct function, but they all contribute to keeping the body alive. Not every exhibit, or every museum, has to do everything that is declared virtuous. The burden is distributed across all the institutions of society. What we seem to have lost is faith that museums are a good idea in themselves, with value to society because of their core technology. When you’re confident that what you do really contributes to the whole, you feel okay about not trying to do what someone else is covering. So to be able to say “no” to good ideas, we need to recapture confidence in the core idea of the museum, and–the really hard part these days–faith that our society is still able to function and that others are doing their part. Museums are a good thing and worthy of their place at the public trough; but they are not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be.

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