Museums in the Digital Age

Saturday, December 28th, 2013
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Museums are changing. Moving beyond static objects in glass cases, they are embracing technology, the value of sustainability and the appeal of personalised content and tactile experiences.

They have realised the need to cater for increasingly disparate visitor groups from an aging population through to the Facebook generation.

Now Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation group has launched a report entitled Museums in the Digital Age which envisages a dynamic future. Through investigating the experiential requirements of each demographic, the report suggests a number of changes to museum design and investments.

Rapid advances in technology will allow more immersive experiences with innovations such as contact-less technology, augmented reality and face-recognition software becoming integral to enhancing physical interactions.

The advancements in 3D printing will also enable the accurate reproduction of rare, damaged or previously unavailable objects. This would allow their exhibition in multiple locations. Additionally, visitors could even have the option of creating a copy of the artefact to take home.

This points to the potential of nomadic museums which no longer need to be fixed to a certain point in space and time. Mobile museums, combined with digital access to collections, will reach a wider demographic, shifting the notion of where and how museums can exist in the future.

Museums, the report says, will also have a responsibility to place emphasis on visitor well-being and encourage green forms of mobility and environmentally friendly practices, as well as sustainable and open spaces. This includes smart controls and sensors to manage water, heating and cooling systems more effectively.

Beyond this, climate change will affect the design of museums and their contents, with a shift toward the preservation and archiving of threatened living elements alongside alternative food cultivation systems such as hydroponic farms.

“It is a common misconception that museums are designed to house objects. In actual fact they are designed to give visitors an experience, a number of museums are already showing a desire to expand their offering and by giving museums visibility of the changes affecting their industry, we hope to inspire their development to better meet the experiential demands of their visitors,” said Arup Foresight + Research + Innovation senior analyst Josef Hargrave.

Through a mentoring programme at Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design in London, Arup has gathered a number of future scenarios designed by students, which provide drastic visions of museums in the year 2040 built around existing social and environmental trends.

One such scenario includes museums functioning as a temporary retreat from future mega-cities, with vegetation helping to regulate environmental toxins.  In this future, Kew Gardens will have a dual role as a research centre and visitor attraction, becoming a driving force in the development of functional plants.


Another scenario envisages transient museum experiences, where objects are showcased on trains as they are returned back to their country of origin. It illustrates the significance of the museum’s role within the larger urban and global context. As focus shifts to increasingly connected networks, museums extend their future user-journeys far beyond the museum walls. Plugging into mass transit systems, the scheme presents the museum with an alternate business model, as a travel and tourism guide and international affairs ambassador.


The ‘New Collectors’ scenario showcases the modern obsession with being “online.” An increased reliance on technology has drastically changed the urban landscape. The city is comprised of images, and advertisements. Digital interfaces overtake physical infrastructure. To appeal to users who favour online social interactions, the museum explores activities extending beyond the museum walls, primarily via the use of digital interfaces and projections.


The final scenario proposes that museum visitors enter “listening pods” to escape the external distractions of the urban environment. In response to an increasingly unstable climate, the museum and “listening pod” will provide a sense of calm and order.

The story of ‘The Listeners’ also briefly demonstrates the severe impact of urbanisation when the protagonist travels from the gallery space to the main museum. Climate change has affected urban life with extreme wind, rain, and perpetual darkness. Technology is used to assist in navigating a treacherous urban environment.

Can modern museums play an active role in mitigating climate change?


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