British Museum blog

5 digital megatrends towards the Museum of the Future

Chris Michaels, Head of Digital Media and Publishing, British Museum

There is no end of digital fads that might make a significant impact on the British Museum. Every time I open LinkedIn, or read a blog, there’s something new, or seeming-new, waiting to be tried. It’s fun.

But what really matters? What are the things that take our mission of being the museum of and for the world, and reveal an entirely new dimension to that great Enlightenment aim; that find a new way to make it real?

That’s a harder question, but it’s the strategically critical one that we will try and answer in the months and years ahead.

Today’s second debate in the Museum of the Future series, Changing public dialogues with museum collections in the digital age, is a crucial staging post in the process of us starting to talk about what digital means.

In advance of that, here are 5 themes – or megatrends, to give them their grander title – that might help shape our future. Big ideas all of them, but what better place than the British Museum to talk about the value of big ideas?
 

  1. The next billion comes online

  2. If we want to be the Museum of and for the World, then being able to tell the story of the history of mankind to all mankind is a conceptually critical moment in our long history. Over the period to 2020, 1 billion new people are forecast to come online for the first time, predominantly through mobile-based Internet connections. In an increasingly digital-dependent economy, that runs consequent with a similar number of people’s emergence into the global middle class, marked by an income of $5000 per year. Is this our new, next audience? As these people connect for the first time, how do we tell them stories of their histories in ways that are most meaningful?

    Watch Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg talk about the next billion and what it means here:

     

  3. HS2 makes the world get smaller

  4. All around the world, from London to China to Russia and Spain, incredible investments are being made in high-speed rail networks that will make tourism – the largest driver of our visitorship – a whole lot easier. There are many complex arguments around the social, economic and environmental impacts of major new rail networks, but whatever happens, it will make getting to the British Museum quicker and cheaper for hundreds of millions of people round the world. We will need to be ready for that. Explore the HS2 proposals for UK railways here.
     

  5. This place is alive! The rise of smart cities and buildings

  6. As the Internet gets built into everything, and as the power and potential of the data that creates gets unlocked, we will have to change the way we manage the connections between people and things. The buildings we live and work in will become smart. The British Museum is a very, very big building, and making it smart might do anything from saving huge amounts on our energy bills, to managing the flow of visitors that creates overcrowding around the Mummies, the Rosetta Stone and (yes) the toilets. Read abut smart cities here.
     

  7. Machines anticipate us and speak in our language

  8. Asking Google, or talking to Siri, are already astonishing experiences – there’s a complex existential pleasure in speaking to a machine, and the machine getting it. The quality of natural language processing and machine learning will accelerate in the period to 2020, and their capabilities will start to move from reactive (‘you ask them’) to predictive (‘they know what you need’). That may alter the way we use the Internet forever – making the voice, not text, the first choice for finding what we need. For a Museum, that’s an exciting moment, helping visitors to help themselves. Is Siri the most important Visitor Services team member we haven’t hired yet?
     

  9. Media markets reach the tipping point

  10. Museums are complex media organisations, involved in book publishing, television, cinema, radio and more. Just this month the Museum has launched Germany: memories of a nation) with BBC Radio 4, while awaiting Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb from Fox in December. As we intersect with all these markets, we have to recognise one thing: digital is the driver of change in all of them. PwC’s market forecasts suggest that digital market revenues will grow at 11.9% compound annual growth rate in the years to 2017, by which time digital will account for 45% of all media revenues. Contrast that to TV and cinema, growing at 3.6%, and with streaming revenues expected to become primary in three years time. There is much to consider here, many complex implications. But whatever the answers, in this as in so much else, one truth is simple: the internet is changing who we are and what we do, and the Museum must change with it.

    Changing public dialogues with museum collections in the digital age (Thursday 16 October, BP Lecture Theatre, 18.30–21.00) is the second in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. The event is fully booked, but an audio recording and video highlights will be available following the event. You can also follow @britishmuseum and #MuseumOfTheFuture for live-tweeting of the event.

    Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

    Filed under: Museum of the Future, , , , , ,

What I want from the British Museum

Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, novelist and critic, former British Museum Trustee

I wrote in my recently published memoir A Parallel Life, about my first encounter with the British Museum. My dad worked in a factory at night making tin cans and during the day he read. One of the things he read voraciously was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is in its pages that I first saw the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the British Museum – the edifice – itself, very feminine and welcome, Muse-like to me. Decades later, after I had moved to London from New York, I was given a Reader’s Card, a pass which enabled me to take books out of the British Library, then housed in the Museum. I can’t tell you the fear and the excitement I felt going through those faux-Grecian pillars for the first time, me – a kid from the Southside of Chicago – here, for free, with no restrictions on what I could see.

And feel.

The British Museum

The British Museum

I came to see, after eight years on the Board here – four of them as Deputy Chair – that every museum, large or small, is an ecosystem. It is the objects; the physical building itself; the curators, other staff and visitors. And then it is the things that cannot be seen: the scholarship; the energy of everyone involved; the connections with the museum’s various communities.

And the Point.

Every museum has a Point. All of the modernisation, the furbelows, bells and whistles must never obscure the Point. And this is held – in a delicate balance – with the Board and the Director and his/her team. The Point, to me – at this moment in what we call the West – is simply to justify the West itself. We take this for granted because the West has been ruler for so long, so long in control, in charge. But this will not be the case in the rapidly approaching future.

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

We must ourselves understand the West: individual freedom; the free flow of ideas; the equality of men and women, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities. The modern Agora. Freedom of religion and speech and thought… and the freedom to roam, which to my mind, is peculiarly British and apt in relation to the time that the Museum came to be, the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 21st century the Age of Enlightenment also means digitisation – not simply the ‘wiring’ of the Museum, but an understanding of what a digital edifice is, that it exists not just on screen or increasingly in digital ‘wearables’. A digital Museum understands the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’, in which every object – even the space itself – can interact with the visitor.

Be the Visitor.

The concept of being a ‘visitor’ itself will become a multi-faceted experience, increasingly one that will not just be in situ.

But everywhere.

The Museum must face Everywhere.

We must not only know what our values are, but the Museum becomes the very demonstration of them. All nations and peoples are welcomed in the spirit of Enlightenment and the Museum must have neither fear nor favour in doing this. The agora of itself therefore extends out, encompassing, fearless. Free.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in one of the Museum’s galleries

And now, we are in a time when this can actually happen – digitally – and museums must acknowledge this, and to some extent enter into a new partnership. Because the Visitor, the Engager, will also take a more and more active part in creating the Museum of the future.

There has to be space for this to happen.

I also don’t think that ethnicity will play a large part in the scheme of things in 50 to 100 years’ time. There will be little or no such thing as ‘ethnic diversity’. In the West we are blending, becoming new people and so the Museum will become a kind of staging post and also a way-station, in which objects, ideas and experience will document the movement toward this cohesion and perhaps point toward possible futures.

Before I first entered the British Museum, I had dreamed about it, refashioned it to fit me.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

This can only happen if the Museum continues to make itself an equal and never allows class or other banalities to get in the way of its mission. And is vigilant about this. Strong and determined.

I have a friend who told me that, when she was a young girl, she used to pass through the British Museum with her eyes closed, on her way to the Library. For her, the Museum, all Western museums, are storehouses of old, sentimental and in the case of the British Museum, colonial and imperial loot. She couldn’t look because there were things inside that belonged to her. I’ve grown to understand the enormous value of global collections, but we must all know why they hold objects that do not ‘belong to us’. This is not only an intellectual explanation, but an emotional one.

Museums must make their Boards younger, swifter, more diverse, able to react to change. The British Museum has made good steps in this area already, but nobody can be complacent; change and turmoil will be the ‘terrible twos’ of the 21st century, and our children, too, if we see them in a positive way. Every day the 21st-century museum must be rebuilt anew. The point of it all has to be revisited, refreshed constantly. In simplicity, precision and elegance.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

Sitting next to my dad back then, poring over those heavy encyclopaedias, we read the stories attached to the objects and we saw, within ourselves, the lands and the times and the people. The British Museum belonged to us then. And yet, it belonged to itself, too. The coming together of these two ideas: The Visitor and the Museum, their conjunction, projection and protection, is what the British Museum in the 21st century has to be about.


Bonnie Greer is on the panel for A living building: how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public?, on Thursday 11 September, 18.30–20.30. This is the first in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

Bonnie Greer’s memoir A Parallel Life is published by Arcadia Books.

Filed under: Museum of the Future, Uncategorized, , , , ,

The British Museum guide 2069

‘Saxo Japonicus’, curator, British Museum (writing in 1969)

In the year that Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, the Boeing 747 made its first flight and The Beatles released Abbey Road, a British Museum curator (using the pseudonym Saxo Japonicus) wrote an article in Colonnade, the staff magazine, about what he thought the British Museum would be like 100 years from then – in 2069. Below are some highlights.

Cover of Colonnade, staff magazine of the British Museum, Spring 1969 edition.

Cover of Colonnade, staff magazine of the British Museum, Spring 1969 edition.

‘Your Trustees are pleased to welcome you to the world-renowned British Museum, the friendly Museum of the Future as we like you to think of us. We wonder if you are one of the many who have delayed getting our stamp on your Certificate of Culture because you thought we were stuffy and formal? Not a bit of it. As you step out of the lift of the 100-storey Forecourt Heliport (from which on a clear day you can see the strikingly shaped tower of Birmingham Suburb Comprehensive) you will be faced with a colonnade painted in a gentle pastel pink especially selected by our psychiatric adviser to make you feel at home. Inside the door computer-composed light music will release all your preresistance and tensions, and there you will be greeted personally by the British Museum Greeting Keeper of the week who will tell you just how pleased we Trustees are to have the honour of your company. The rota of the weekly Greeting Keepers can be had by post from the Publications Building (see later), so you can choose whom you wish to meet, from a Palaeolithic flint expert to an authority on mid-20th-century plastic teaspoons or even one of the bibliographer of probable and possible books. There may be a little wait while your queue reaches him, but this is a privilege we cannot let you miss. The Greeting Keeper will be most happy to shake your hand. Indeed, if he doesn’t shake the hands of at least 2000 of you honest, average people during his week’s duty we consider it just a tiny bit naughty of him!

Original article in Colonnade

Original article in Colonnade

Perhaps, too, you have been misled into thinking that the British Museum is concerned with history and the past? [NB The Trustees of the British Museum are specially licensed to use the words 'history' and 'past' in terms other than those of denunciation as being fit persons to use them for educational and non-corruptive purposes.] We must admit that after the Re-Education Act of ten years ago, with its much praised clause ‘Towards the suppression of the past’, it seemed to many of us that the only public spirited thing to do was to scrap the whole collection and turn the buildings over to more humanitarian ends such as temporary accommodation for the under-integrated. But the Public Re-educator would not hear of it. He said, to our great pride, that the 37,000-strong British Museum staff were too highly trained to be used anywhere else in the public sector and it would be a pity if their rarefied skills could not continue to be used in the service of progress. He pointed out that since every development in the past had once been in the future to somebody, an since all change, as everyone knows, is improvement, so every culture and period in history justifies the superior one which succeeded it, and thus proves at every stage the inevitable rightness of progress (how obvious it all seems now!)

We have been happy and obliged to rearrange the British Museum on these doctrinally sound lines. The main exhibition runs in a circle round the ground floor, and you will be taken round it in your chair on a continuous moving band at 3kph. We regret that you must be strapped in for the trip. This is for your own safety, for owing to shortage of staff we could not guarantee to recover you if you fell from the band into the pit below it. This is overrun with a population of picturesquely savage cats estimated to have increased to several thousand since they were declared a Protected Cultural Property in 2047. The exhibition begins with the Old Stone Age, seen from the point of view of a visionary technologist of the Old Stone Age. His recreated thoughts are broadcast over your headphones. And so it goes on right up to the present day, which is described in a concluding 15-minute recorded lecture called ‘The Present: Prelude to the Future’. We hope in this way to educate your historical imagination.

The theme of every one of our labels (they are in six-feet-high neon lettering easily read at 3kph) is improvement. We show clearly and graphically just how the artifacts of each age were an improvement on those preceding. Take those plastic spoons again. You can see how the design of English spoons steadily improved from clumsy Medieval ones with their awkward bowls and narrow handles, through the more technologically advanced but far too fussy and ornate silverware of the 18th century, to the beautifully stark and almost practical white plastic spoons of the late 20th century (some from excavations of the BM Canteen of that period), and then to our own dry-ice disposables, which just melt into the air during use. Finally we try to project the future and the possibility, or rather certainty, of the non-spoon, the spoon perhaps which could be created in the user’s mind by taking a hallucinatory pill.

There are a number of special and temporary exhibitions. In the North Entrance, there is a selection of ‘The Ten Most Famous Objects of the British Museum’ arranged with the convenience of the One Day World Tour Company in mind. The objects are displayed in a large circle so that they can be seen from the glass dome of the ODWTC thermonuclear craft when it has descended through the hinged roof for its 5-minute stop. Other visitors can see the objects at the same time from the outer perimeter. Protective suits and masks are available at a moderate fee. The objects are of course plastic reproductions made by our laboratories. Thus do we prove to the world that modern technology can surpass anything done in the past, for our models not only reproduce every detail but also do not deteriorate in the tiresome way the originals did after only a few years of thermonuclear exhaust and vibration….

…Your stay in the BM will not be complete without a visit to the publicateria, where food and coffee machines are tastefully and imaginatively alternated with the automatic vendors of publications, postcards and replicas. The publicateria used to be deep underground until the regrettable affair of the Great Fleet Flood (you must not miss the exciting memorial in fibre-glass which stands over the spot where the passages were sealed off) but it has now been moved to a huge transparent plastic platform fitted across the dome of the Reading Room. This not only uses valuable space, but allows you, while having your repast, to look down on the wonderful scene of scholarly activity below you. Powerful binoculars can be hired so that you can actually read what the researchers are writing in their notebooks. Thus you too can stand on the threshold of new knowledge! Down there in the Reading Room, the Research Students of this country and the USA in their tens of thousands work intensively through their two-hour shifts. It is no longer possible, because of lack of space, to allow students to read for more than two hours a day, but the extension to 24-hour opening admits twelve shifts a day. Through the floor you can also see the amusing scenes when a Student’s two-hour meter runs out, lets out a loud alarm bell, and sets off a mechanism which propels him automatically out of the door if he has not left within 60 seconds.

You, of course, will be equipped with a similar 60-minute meter. Our popularity has led naturally to this measure. So don’t spend too long reading this, but get on with your visit. And the best of luck to you!’

We are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future in a series of three monthly debates in September to December 2014, and online. You can book your place at one of the debates now, and we’ll be inviting you to share your views online in September. In the meantime, visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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