Tag Archives: trendwatching

Remaking the Museum for the 21st century

reviewLogoBlock-1Several months ago, Robert Fogarty asked if I wanted to contribute something to a special issue of The Antioch Review called “The Future of Museums.”

I did! It’s been years since I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and this was my opportunity to see if anything I’d learned in my career as a consulting anthropologist might serve as a way to think about the future of these precious but challenged institutions.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay. (The full text may be found in the issue now on the stands [Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2016]. You should be able to buy the issue here soon.)

Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century: A Hakluytian opportunity
Grant McCracken

When I became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, I was a young man and naïve on virtually every count. I see that now.

If anything could save me, it was that I was recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. This program acted on its graduates like a seminary or a yeshiva. We entered the world with our eyes on fire. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and, more particularly, what to do. My task, as I saw it, was to make North American culture course through the museum. It was to capture the contemporary world in archives and exhibits.

This was not quite the way the museum saw my task. The Institute (ICC) was an expedient designed to address the Museum’s (ROM) most pressing problem. The membership was dying. The average age was 60-something. Once a great center of life in Toronto and Canada, the ROM needed institutional rescue. Broaden the audience, that was the thing. But broaden the idea of culture? If you must, but really, on second thought, please don’t. The ROM was as ambivalent as I was naïve.

In the intervening 25 years, my career has taken me out of the museum and then out of the academic world altogether. This essay represents an elliptical return, a fly-by that enables me to bring things learned in the “deep space” of the consulting world to bear on the museum world that has in some ways always remained my sun.

The news from this perspective is both grim and heartening. Let’s start with grim.

My argument is that some museums might wish to turn their powers of observation on the future. They could make themselves a little like Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, a private secretary, and a deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there.

Here’s the nub, or a nub, of the essay:

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity.

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.

Steampunk Cometh?

EmberWhile in London, I had a chance to catch up with Trevor Davis.  Davis is one of the people responsible for the IBM Social Sentiment Index and the prediction in January of 2013 that we should expect Steampunk to move from its status as a niche enthusiasm to something more mainstream.

IBM offered its prediction in a wonderful graphic.  (Click on the image to get a larger view.)


I came home from 3 weeks in London to find a Pottery Barn catalogue waiting for me.

Here, I thought, was just the place you might expect to find a steam punk reference…whatever other cultural trends might come swimming into view.  I began to read.

The results were vexing in the way this kind of work is so often vexing.  There was both no evidence and some evidence of steampunk  in the Pottery Barn catalog.

No, there is no explict reference verbal or visual.  No helmet made of  leather, studs, and brass fittings.  No science fiction weaponry as if designed by a Victorian.  No elaborate time pieces that somehow look to be, mysteriously, steam operated.   No glasses that look like something lifted from a 19th century optometrist.  There was nothing obviously, unmistakably out of the Steampunk design handbook.

And that’s a pity.  These catalogs, stemming perhaps from the brilliant early work by Stephen Gordon for his Restoration Hardware catalogs, now have range they didn’t have in the Sears Roebuck days.  The contemporary catalog lets in lots of things in addition to the product.  Things are staged beautifully and with great care.  So it’s not inconceivable for a Pottery Barn to include a Steampunk helmet or watch for illustrative, evocative, purposes.

Still the fact that there is no explicit reference to Steampunk is NOT evidence that there is no Steampunk influence.  I think you can see it in the color pallet, in the mad scientist theme, in the laboratory.  As follows:

Ember Ember Ember Ember


In point of fact, something happens to trends as they move from the margin to the mainstream.  They are obliged to give up some of their defining features.   This is a little like the social climber who is obliged to give up some of her friends if she wants to rise.  To include a Steampunk helmet would mean quoting an aspect of the  trend that is too strange and wonderful for the average American household (at least the kind who shop at Pottery Barn).  (If I may voice a note of skepticism against this argument, there is something pretty strange about the skulls.  The American household is perhaps less timid than we think.)

This necessary “gearing down” of the trend is the reason that early adopters often disdain the trend as it enters the mainstream.  Clearly, it’s been diminished or “dumbed down.”  Or to put this another way, the trend must give up some of its extreme characteristics to find a larger audience.  In a word, it must be dedorkified.  (In effect, this reverses the work of the enthusiastic early adopters / inventors who delight in dorkifying the trend in the first place.  I think we can probably agree that the whole issue of dorkification deserves more careful study.)

Trends are Diderot packs.  They are a bundle of ideas, aesthetics, materials, colors, shapes, motifs.  Not all of these are welcome on the voyage from margin to mainstream.  Some will move on.  Others will fall behind.  And this may help explain why the signature pieces of the Steampunk look are not in evidence by the Pottery Barn catalog. Indeed, the absence of these things are exactly what we would expect of Steampunk in this new context.  In sum, the absence of proof is, in a sense, proof of proof.  As it were.

So now we have a problem.  The most defining design signatures, the ones we can used as proof of a trend’s diffusion, are, in some cases, the very things that will be “edited out” by the diffusion process.   It’s not that the Steampunk influence is not there in the Pottery Barn catalog.  But there can be no influence unless it is in a sense rendered invisible.

All of this suggests we need a more robust methodology for identifying a trend in motion.  Perhaps some combination of colors, shapes, objects, with a statistical feeling for how far from random is the presence of certain elements especially in certain combinations.  This tool might enable us to say that our intuitive feeling that the Pottery Barn catalog is in places “pretty Steampunkish” has foundation…because the copresence of these colors, objects and shapes is precisely x far from random.  Naturally we would to examine all the Pottery Barn catalogs and see if we can show when the trend enters the catalogs and whether this corresponds to what we know about the development of the trend itself.

Trends have internal dynamics.  We also know that whether and how fast they move through the social world depends on a set of diffusion dynamics that we are relatively good at thinking about.  (My own modest contribution can be found here.)

But our work as students of the trend is not complete until we create a model of all the trends, and all the decisive economic, historical, social, demographic, technical, digital, and other factors that make up the context in which the trend flourish (or fail).

So was IBM right?  Is the planet called Steampunk exercising a tidal pull on the oceans of contemporary culture?  Reader, you decide.